Why Korea Still Fears Japan

"Japan’s record of mayhem stretches all the way back to the sixteenth century."

“Today the guns are silent,” proclaimed General Douglas MacArthur from the decks of the battleship Missouri on September 2, 1945, after accepting Japan’s surrender in World War II. “A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death—the seas bear only commerce. Men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed.”

MacArthur merits top marks for waxing lyrical, and he was no slouch at generalship. But he hardly rates as an eagle-eyed observer of the postwar world. If the world rested quietly at peace, it did so only for an instant. Politics abhors a vacuum. War engulfed the erstwhile Japanese Empire anew as the surrender displaced Japanese colonial regimes across the region. Contenders warred to determine who would govern liberated lands from Malaya to Manchuria.

And Korea. Starting in the 1890s, Imperial Japan fought a series of limited wars to entrench itself in continental Asia. It annexed Korea and went to extravagant lengths to eradicate Korean nationhood. Bad blood continues to poison Korean attitudes toward Japan to this day despite the island state’s radical transformation. Indeed, to all appearances, Japan—not North Korea—stokes the most passion in South Korea today.

That’s tough for outsiders like yours to truly fathom. Japan has been a good international citizen for seventy years now, ever since U.S. forces ousted its militarist rulers in favor of a liberal republic displaying a strong pacifist streak. And for all the talk of Japanese rearmament, Tokyo spends a mere 1 percent of GDP on the armed forces. You can’t buy that much bang for so few bucks—certainly not enough to send forth conquering hordes across the Tsushima Strait.

Why fret over that pittance if you’re Korean?

Juxtapose inoffensive Japan against North Korea, a nuclear-armed totalitarian regime of dubious sanity that routinely menaces the South—at times with actual weapons fire. The Kim regime—the same one that invaded and nearly overran the South in 1950—remains in power, the leadership’s bombast undiminished. Pyongyang accepts neither South Korea’s political legitimacy nor its existence. A formal state of war endures to this day.

The Korean War claimed untold numbers of lives while leaving the peninsula in ruins. Pyongyang (and its Soviet and Communist Chinese backers) were directly responsible for the bloodletting. Southerners can clearly come to terms with past wrongs—as they have with the Korean War legacy. Their inability to do so vis-à-vis Japan to date carries major, and harmful, consequences for U.S. and allied strategy in the Far East.

Specifically, the diplomatic feud across the Tsushima Strait keeps the two Asian heavyweights from joining the United States in a tripartite marine alliance to police Northeast Asia. America is a close ally of South Korea. It’s a close ally of Japan. But seldom if ever do the two allies work together independently of the United States. That makes the U.S. Pacific Command the hub in a hub-and-spoke arrangement within the U.S. alliance system.

This is starkly suboptimal. Alliances thrive on mutual goals and strategy, and underperform when allies see one another—not external threats—as the problem. Adding a spoke connecting Seoul with Tokyo would do a world of good—but it would demand that they transcend the longstanding era of bad feelings.

Think about it. North Korea is a johnny-come-lately in Korean and world history. And however batty, it’s part of the larger Korean family. That takes some of the bite out of controversies embroiling Seoul and Pyongyang. Korean-Japanese enmity, by contrast, dates back further than World War II. It goes back further than 1910, when Japan annexed the peninsula. It goes back even further than 1894-1895, when Imperial Japan launched into its continental misadventures during the First Sino-Japanese War.

Indeed, Japan’s record of mayhem stretches all the way back to the sixteenth century while spanning the military and, after 1868, imperial regimes. Koreans may well fear that the last seventy years represents the calm before the next storm. Liberal rule today, militarist rule tomorrow?

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