By the time Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Park Geun-hye took office, Japan-South Korea relations were already experiencing a downturn over history issues and Lee Myung-bak’s unprecedented presidential visit to the disputed islets of Dokdo/Takeshima. Park’s refusal to hold a bilateral summit became the symbol of strained ties. Then on November 2, 2015 — 980 days after taking office — Park met Abe for bilateral talks in Seoul. On December 28, the two sides declared a rapprochement with an agreement supporting survivors of wartime brothels. Tensions worsened again during President Moon Jae-in’s term (2017–2022), contradicting the narrative that leaders had turned relations around in late 2015. Yet the diplomatic relationship was not on a downward spiral. Japanese and Korean policymakers managed to put a floor under their interactions owing to three stabilizing mechanisms that operated during both the Park and Moon administrations. First, political elites practiced mutual restraint to limit vicious cycles of nationalist recriminations. Second, Tokyo and Seoul carefully calibrated policies toward Beijing while avoiding divergence from each other. Third, reassuring the United States about the cost-effectiveness of its alliances involved trilateral cooperation that also helped stabilize Japan-South Korea relations.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The author appreciates many not-for-attribution conversations with policymakers and analysts in Seoul and Tokyo, and thanks Jasmine Sumin Cho, Jeeyoon Chung, Chanmi Kwak, Dahyun Christine Lee, and Yumi Park for excellent research assistance.
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- China politics
- East Asia diplomacy
- Korea–Japan relations
- US foreign policy
- security alliance