top of page
  • Writer's pictureJiah Hwang

Review of “[Japan–Republic of Korea Relations and Two-Level Games]"


The journal starts by stating how the bilateral relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan crumbled significantly more throughout 2015-2019. The goal is to analyze the speeches and actions made by the two countries’ leaders throughout this time and how they were harmful, including the obvious historical grudges with the highlighted topics being “forced labor, comfort women, and the Japan Self-Defense Force.” President Moon Jae-In was elected in 2017 with his focus being on economic growth, national reform, and renegotiating the 2015 Japan–South Korea Comfort Women Agreement. Yet, his speeches supporting these clauses, specifically the Japan–South Korea Comfort Women Agreement, were mostly focused on the domestic audience of the ROK and neglected growing bilateral relations with Japan, claiming that Japan must offer compensation to the victims and proper self-reflection. The article states three main claims in his speeches and mindset throughout the first half of his term:

  1. The historical issues with Japan remain unresolved to this day

  2. The criteria for Japan to honor the victims of WW2 (where the comfort women incident occurred) is to reacknowledge history

  3. There is a possibility that they could build a friendship with Japan with “a future-oriented perspective”

In the second half of his term, he started to vocalize joint efforts between South Korea and Japan to create “‘protect universal values of humanity, the principles of international law and democracy based on the separation of powers.’”

The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, took office in 2012 and was known for his right-wing ideology, supporting a greater regional defense and security role in Japan. His speeches regarding relations with South Korea were positive, as he was outspoken about his desire to engage in conversations to improve relations. Yet, in 2015, his remarks lacked reflection or apology for the events of the end of WW2. Although the ROK was mentioned as Japan’s “most important neighboring country” throughout 2014-2015, and again in 2016 after North Korea’s nuclear threat, his speech in 2018 omitted South Korea when talking about “[deepening] cooperative relations with a future-oriented perspective built on trust.” References of South Korea were completely omitted in Japan in 2019 but returned as the “most important neighbor” in 2020.

The first issue recognized that strained relations was the history of forced labor of Koreans during wartime in WW2. This issue was resolved in 1965 with the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation Between Japan and the Republic of Korea, yet, victims have continued to seek reparations. Most notably, the Nippon Steel Forced Labor Suit started in 2015. In response, Japan started to withhold some of its chemical exports to the ROK, causing the ROK to threaten to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement. Victims continue to fight for their civil rights, which creates a line between how far the government can go from supporting their domestic citizens to risking harm in their international relationships.

The second and likely most well-known issue was the use of “comfort women,” who were South Korean women used as sexual slaves during the war for the Japanese Imperial Army, subjected to violence if resisted. In 2015, an agreement between South Korea and Japan stating that the ROK would no longer criticize Japan about the issue of comfort women as long as Japan expressed their apologies and financial care for the victims was reached, Japan made financial reparations, but the public turned out to prefer to receiving official reparations. With the newly-elected President Moon later stating that using comfort women was a “crime against humanity,” this issue grew once more. President Moon later commemorated the comfort women by creating a new monument and national holiday, hoping it was a peaceful way to respect the victims while not damaging relations with Japan. However, there continue to be more comfort women statues built around Korea and the world, with Japan even cutting ties with San Francisco with their new comfort women statue in 2017. There are also court cases surrounding comfort women. In 2021, the Seoul Court ruled that the government of Japan must pay reparations to comfort women, causing President Moon a great deal of surprise and worry about how this would affect the bilateral relations with Japan.

Lastly, there is the issue of the Japan Self-Defense Force, which sprouted from the end of WWII, when the U.S. drafted the Constitution of Japan and Article 9, a clause that “[outlaws] war as a means to settle international disputes and banning the existence of Japanese armed forces with war-making potential.” The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) acts as a legal gray area, counted as an extension of the national police force. Efforts to relax Article 9 started in the 1980s for Japan’s role as a “security actor.” In 2015, the legislation was relaxed to allow Japanese forces to carry weapons during UN peacekeeping operations and to participate in international actions, along with the permission for the JSDF to aid an ally in the event of an attack. Regarding these changes and the relations between Japan and South Korea, in late 2018, there was a prominent event where Japan accused the South Korean warship of locking the fire-control radar on the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol aircraft. In contrast, South Korea claimed that their original mission was to help rescue a North Korean ship from international waters and that the Japanese aircraft had flown at a low altitude perceived as threatening towards the warship.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 giving the two governments a chance to discuss their relations with a drastic decrease in protests, along with a change in rule (Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon Suk-yeol), there may be hope yet.


The article was well-researched and the identification of the three main issues that held back improving bilateral relations between the ROK and Japan was accurate and quite helpful in the understanding of the history of the two countries. The main claim the article was attempting to make was “that bilateral relations degraded due to the poor management of two-level games by the political leaders of the governments of South Korea and Japan,” as clearly stated in the Abstract. For each section of the article, from the introduction of the two rulers, to each of the three main issues, at the end of each paragraph, the article doesn’t fail to clearly point out what effect the issue or person had on the relations between the ROK and Japan. Yet, one way I believe this could improve talking about why it is so important for both sides to have positive relations with each other. For one, they have the common ally of the U.S. who had pushed for the ROK and Japan to move past their history. This pressure also had to do with their common threat of North Korea, who has continued to put out nuclear threats mutiple times throughout the years to the U.S. and more. The U.S. believes that a partnership between the small yet highly technologically developed countries of South Korea and Japan could improve the chances of a proper defense before the threats get out of hand. There would obviously be economic benefits for both countries as well. Yet, these ideas are mentioned briefly or not at all in the article, perhaps under the assumption that this is general knowledge. Nonetheless, I believe it is best to first state why the problem (the crumbling bilateral relations between the two countries) is a problem (reasons why those bilateral relations are important), as their potential friendship could be effective worldwide.


Although the years leading up until now has shown little promise in improving the bilateral relations between the countries with one (the ROK) actively trying to commemorate and urging the other to acknowledge the past, while the other (Japan) continued to become more active regionally and ignoring such requests, as the article stated, with the changes in leadership and the pandemic having given people some time to “cool off,” this year and the following may bring time for great progress. After all, it is in the favor of both countries to help one another in the long run, which is a fact they both recognize.


Stith, Emily. “Japan–Republic of Korea Relations and Two-Level Games: Exploring Historical Issues of Conflict and Their Impact on the Ability for the Governments of South Korea and Japan to Fortify Bilateral Relations.” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, 2022. Air University, Accessed 19 7 2023.



bottom of page