The National Library of Korea in Seoul, venue of the the first meeting.
Despite these difficulties, working as a project assistant to the Korea Foundation sponsored project, “Japan and Korea in the Evolving China-US relations” made it easier to think about a more optimistic outlook. This endeavor brings together scholars of East Asian international relations from Japanese, Korean and Singaporean Universities, who are willing to openly discuss salient and sensitive issues surrounding Japan-South Korea relations, and their impact to the broader geostrategic landscape of the region. From non-traditional security issues to tech wars, this project covers a diverse set of topics that could eventually inspire not only a more sincere and meaningful bilateral relations between the two, but also a more extensive contribution, regionally and internationally.
The project commenced in earnest with a workshop held in the National Library of Korea in Seoul where majority of the project participants gathered to talk about three key guiding themes: (1) the future of international liberal order (ILO); (2) the legacies and limitations of the San Francisco System; and, (3) East Asian modernity in the global historical perspective. In discussing the first theme, participants lament on the Trump Administration’s inability to sustain the U.S.-led liberal order, and the impact of the ongoing trade wars between China and the US, particularly when it comes to the “internet of things”, and the need for alternative models to realist interpretations of international relations. In exploring East Asia as source of alternative model, there is a need to examine two layers of the ILO, free trade and liberal democracy. While China has so far demonstrated its reluctance to support these principles, other countries had and continue to offer other modalities. For instance, a human security approach, which have been a core of Japanese foreign policy in Southeast Asia, compels us to “think outside the box” of the Westphalian, realist worldview, as well as considering an Asian way of dealing with humanitarian issues. In the domain of technology, despite US and China maintaining a lion’s share of the tech industry, both Japan and South Korea have proven that it is possible to overtake the US in the production of certain technologies, such as AI.
The second theme tackles the structural embeddedness of the San Francisco System to East Asia. While the American designed hub-and-spokes system benefited both the US and its allies in supporting the former’s hegemonic projects and the latter’s security and economic interests, it is undermined by unsettled historical issues. Japan-South Korea relations, I believe, aptly demonstrate the inseparability of geopolitics from normative issues of reconciliation, where the former is sometimes instrumentalized to pursue the latter. As the participants discussed, Japan’s pursuit for normalization appears to be part of a wholesale package to rewrite history, and consequently triggers anti-Japan sentiments from South Korea. This cascaded to informally invalidating previous reconciliation agreements on the state level, and the Koreans’ boycotting of Japanese products. A point of convergence, however, complicates the situation. Both Japan and South Korea are US allies, and in being so, the two “spokes” have been more preoccupied in acting on American interests in the region, rather than concentrating on their problems. Thus, so far, means to resolve geostrategic and historical issues have fallen short of transforming unequal relations, and remained within the rigid confines of the 68-year old San Francisco system.
Yet, the problem is not exclusively about how state leaders conduct international politics. The third theme highlights the responsibility of scholars and other non-state actors in dealing with the history problem. An outstanding problem is the tendency of each country to write their own history (and mythologies) without promoting inter-cultural/historical understanding. Prof. Brendan Howe’s characterization aptly summarized the condition: “Japan escapes from history, Korean maintains it, China invents it.” Because it has been proven difficult to tackle this within the state-centric framework, third parties such as National Libraries, the academe and civil society from across the region should work together to rectify both the West’s historical misreading of the region, and to make their existing projects be heard, if not central to state-level discourse on the issue.
Indeed, the prospects appear gloomy. This does not, however, stop the participants of the project to think about areas where Japan and South Korea could collaborate. During the association for Asian Studies Conference in Asia (AAS-in-Asia 2020), they gathered virtually in
a Special Roundtable entitled, “Japan and Korea in the US-China Relations: A Reappraisal of the Post-War Order”. During this session, each discussant offered their perspectives on how a Japan-South Korea partnership could influence China-US relations. Three spheres of possible cooperation stood out: (1) non-traditional security; (2) multilateralism; and, (3) technology. With he insufficiency of Westphalian system in addressing transnational issues, such as the OVID-19 pandemic, refugees and cybercrime, Japan and South Korea as middle powers should take advantage of this opportunity to play their shared strengths of understanding non-state-centric threats. The major problem that befalls the two, however, is their respective nationalist government’s tendency to politicize and securitize non-traditional security issues, thereby turning them into traditional security concerns. Another challenge is the geostrategic differences between the two, especially when it comes to North Korea and Pan-Korean nationalism, where Japan assumes a peripheral role. Considering South Korea’s domestic and alliance politics, Japan arguably has a less complicated position in dealing with China and the US.
Multilateralism appears to offer a viable alternative, that is, considering a third-party state as a space for collaboration. Clashes in security and trade between China and the US paved way for recent trends towards multilateral frameworks, guided mostly by the strategic visions of middle and emerging powers. Bilateralism, in the context of Japan-South Korea relations, appears to have short-term results but lacking in concrete, sustainable outcomes because they are not institutionalized, something a multilateral structure could address. A multilateral relationship with India, in particular, provides a promising opportunity for Japan and South Korea to work on shared functional interests, such as infrastructure cooperation, where India could supply human resources, and Japan and South Korea offering experience and technology respectively.
Still, China and the US remain significant to Japan-South Korea relations, especially in the domain of technology. The existing technological disputes between the two, along with the changes the COVID-19 brought in how the world use the internet has made predicting the future of tech wars more difficult. It is important to look at the political economy of tech wars, especially the goal of the US to curb advanced semiconductor access to China, to understand how this could pose another challenge to possible cooperation between Japan and South Korea.
Clearly, the lines that divide Japan and South Korea are both geostrategic and ontological. While they share similar concerns regarding the security and stability of the region, the issues of national identity and historical interpretation loom large in the background. However, as these problems are historically constituted and contemporarily conditioned, the project thus far has demonstrated that there is a chance to reconstruct their relations, for their own sake and the benefit of the region. Casting the net further than what the Westphalian state system could can help broaden our perspective and shed light to the existing efforts that bind Japan and South Korea, which have been thus far rendered secondary to traditional security interests. While the challenge of COVID-19 pandemic is out of Japan and South Korea’s control, there remains the persistent humanitarian and developmental concerns that are within their reach.
November 16-18, 2019
Members – Brendan Howe, Haruko Satoh and Carmina Untalan – attended the conference on human security at the University of Tokyo on November 17, 2019 and also had a brain storming meeting about the project.
Group photo at the dinner after the Seoul workshop
December 17-18, 2019
The first workshop in Seoul at the National Library with the research members residing in either Japan or South Korea (Brendan Howe, Jaewoo Choo, Xiangfeng Yang, June Park, Haruko Satoh and Carmina Untalan).
January 9-17, 2020
February 8-9, 2020
Organised working meetings with the two researchers in Singapore (Kei Koga and Mingjiang Li at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) and also presented at the IAFOR conference on Southeast Asia on the subject of Southeast Asia in international politics of Asia (Haruko Satoh and Joseph Haldane).
May 27-30, 2020
Presented special panel on COVID 19 (via Zoom). Speakers:
Jaewoo Choo, Kyunghee University, South Korea
Brendan Howe, Ewha Women’s University, South Korea
Kei Koga, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Mingjiang Li, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
June Park, National Research Foundation of Korea, South Korea
Haruko Satoh, Osaka University, Japan
Yang Xianfeng, Yonsei University, South Korea
ACAS/ACCS2020 - Plenary Panel Discussion. This panel is sponsored by The Korea Foundation.
August 31-September 4, 2020
Roundtable examining Japan-Korea relations by focusing on the bilateral relationship's rapidly changing international context.
Haruko Satoh, Osaka University, Japan (chair)
Brendan Howe, Ewha Women's University, South Korea (discussant)
Jaewoo Choo, Kyunghee University, South Korea (discussant)
June Park, National Research Foundation of Korea, South Korea (discussant)
Kei Koga, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (discussant)
Xiangfeng Yang, Yonsei University, South Korea (discussant)
Mingjiang Li, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (discussant)
Summary of Outcome (Narrative)
The main outcomes of the project are: 4 op-ed pieces and 1 policy analysis piece published online as below; 3 workshops (1 conducted in Seoul, 2 conducted online on the side of the academic conferences that we participated in) and 2 special roundtable panels for online conference (AAS-in-Asia 2020 and IAFOR Asian Conference on Asian Studies 2020); and agreement to submit journal articles for publication in the Asian Studies Review in 2021. Concrete plan for year-2, including agreement to produce at least 3 podcasts for Asia Matters, participation in the Asia Political and International Studies Association (APISA) conference in November 2020 (online). An agreement among some of the members to pursue a new project on non-traditional security and peacebuilding in year 2021, with new members. Consolidation of plan to launch a course on Japan-Korea relations at Osaka School of International Public Policy.
ASEAN’s Response to COVID-19: Geopolitical Implications for the Indo-Pacific
Author Kei Koga, publication date, August 10: https://www.openasia.asia/aseans-response-to-covid-19-geopolitical-implications-for-the-indo-pacific/
Rising to the Challenge of COVID-19: The role of South Korea and New Actors
Author Brendan How, publication date, August 10: https://www.openasia.asia/covid-19-south-korea-and-new-actors-brendan-howe/
What COVID-19 Reveals: The Risk of China-centered Global Supply Chains
Author June Park, publication date, July 30: https://www.openasia.asia/covid-19-reveals-risk-of-china-centered-global-supply-chains-and-tech-ai/
A Combustible Year for China-US Relations
Author Yang Xiangfeng, publication date, Sept 15: https://www.openasia.asia/a-combustible-year-for-sino-us-relations/
Japan and Korea: A Fragile Relationship
Author Haruko Satoh, publication date, August 20: https://research.nus.edu.sg/eai/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/12/EAIBB-No.-1552-Japan-and-Korea_fragile-relationship-2.pdf
IAFOR Conference on Asian Studies
Topic of event:
Asian Studies (Special Panel on COVID-19)
Date: May 28
Online: 150 participants
Association of Asian Studies in Asia
Topic of event:
Asia at the Crossroads
Date: August 31
Online: 900 participants