Normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan

   After opening her doors to the outside world in the late nineteenth century, Japan adopted a foreign policy to advance into Korea. Both the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) were fought to establish her power and authority in the Korean Peninsula. While the Government of Japan was increasing its interference in Korea through some compelled agreements, Western powers such as the United States (U.S.), Great Britain, and the Soviet Union recognized Japan’s right to take such political, military, and economic measures in Korea, and decided not to interfere or place obstacles in the way of Japanese interests in the Peninsula as they were of the opinion that this would directly contribute to permanent peace in the East. Nevertheless, on August 29, 1910, the annexation of Korea to Japan occurred, and Korea lived under Japanese rule for the following thirty-five years. During the Second World War, the surrender and postwar status of Japan and the independence of Korea became highly questionable between the leaders of the Allied Powers. With the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea got free from the Japanese administration after a long time, but in a little while, the Peninsula was divided into two spheres along 38th parallel line: the U.S. in the south and the Soviet Union in the north. As a result of internal and external conflicts, the division has become permanent, and governments were established on both sides. The early Republic of Korea (ROK) government derived its legitimacy from its opposition to Japan and North Korea, portraying South Korea as under threat from the North and South. Therefore, South Korea refused diplomatic and trade relations with Japan, using Japan as a domestic bugbear to rally support for the government. Furthermore, the prolonged occupation of Japan by the Allied Forces as from her surrender made relations between two countries more complicated. For six years after South Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, the two countries lived in isolation from each other, almost completely lacking formal channels of contact. It was only with the intensification of the Cold War in East Asia and the subsequent negotiations for the San Francisco Peace Treaty that the stage was set for dialogue on the issue of diplomatic normalization. First over-all talks began on February 15, 1952. Negotiations continued with repeated suspensions up to 1965, a period of more than thirteen years. Finally, after two decades of hate and antagonism following the Second World War, Japan and the Republic of Korea took a step towards amicable relations, with the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations and related documents on June 22, 1965 in Tokyo. In this way, the diplomatic relationship between Japan and South Korea was established in the year of 1965 in spite of all doubts and oppositions within both countries. The treaty was signed in Tokyo by foreign ministers of both countries, Lee Tong-won and Shiina Etsusaburo, under the governments of President Park Chung Hee and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, and it took effect on December 18, 1965, after having been ratified by by the Japanese Diet in December, and by the Korean National Assembly later in August.

Delegates raising a toast after signing the Treaty on Basic Relations in 1965 (Photo:

     The treaty established diplomatic relations and declared all treaties and agreements signed between two countries before August 22, 1910, to be null and void. While opening doors to economic, political and cultural cooperation, these steps taken for normalized relations also left various major issues unsettled. One of the most important question of debate was the Japanese rule in the Korean Peninsula in the early 1990s. The Korean side was waiting for an official apology from Japan in the treaty while the Japanese side, on the other hand, strongly refused to take responsibility for colonial wrongdoings. Regarding this issue, the additional agreement called the “Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on the Economic Cooperation between the Republic of Korea and Japan,” does not clearly indicate any compensation for injuries and damages incurred to Korean individuals related to Japan’s colonial rule as well.

     The legal status of Korean residents in Japan is another important controversial question after the war. The Agreement on the Legal Status and the Treatment of the Nationals of the ROK Residing in Japan was signed to solve this problem completely. In 1952, all Koreans including those residing in Japan, were to lose their Japanese nationality, but they were allowed to continue to reside in Japan, and their rights and interests were protected in this agreement. Since this agreement was applicable only to nationals of the ROK, the question remained whether all Korean residents deprived of Japanese nationality are entitled to the rights and interests provided for in this agreement.

     National sovereignty over the seas and fishery rights were also a popular unresolved issue ever since the controversial Rhee Line had been drawn unilaterally around the Korean Peninsula by President Syngman Rhee in 1952. With the Agreement on Fisheries, the Rhee Line faded away, and both countries established a joint regulation zone by mutually recognizing that each party had the right to establish a fishery zone.

     The question of the jurisdiction over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands has often been discussed during the talks, but it has never been placed on the agenda. Both governments have been adopted very obdurate stance about the issue, and claimed that its territorial jurisdiction belonged to them. Even today, this problem remains unsolved, and it seems almost impossible to reach an agreement between two governments in the near future.


     Lastly, Japan’s policy toward North Korea was another major problem in that period. While South Korea insisted that she is the only legitimate government, and Japan should sever all political and economic links with North Korea, Japanese policy separated economics from politics in its dealings with North Korea. Japan chose to follow to ply trade with North Korea although she did not recognize or have diplomatic relations with the North Korean regime. There are also major disputes about the issue such Japan’s continuous repatriation of Korean residents in Japan to North Korea; Japanese business firms’ plan of equipment exportation to North Korea and of hosting North Korean technicians in Japan; the Japanese Government’s decision to recognize a pro-Pyongyang educational institution -Chosun University- in Tokyo; the Japanese decision to permit the visits of some Korean residents in Japan to North Korea; the registration of Korean residents in Japan; and the repatriation of Korean nationals in the Soviet-ruled Sakhalin Islands. All those issues did not seriously jeopardize the South Korean-Japanese relationship, but left another scar in the South Korean plan to build a friendly relationship with Japan, and they proved a stumbling block to a firm alliance.

     The pacts signified a fresh hope to bury the bitter memories of colonial experiences and construct a new, friendly, and cooperative relationship over it. Two nations began their relations on an equal basis, they recognized each other as sovereign and independent entities, and they united for collective security against the threat of international communism, but the real progress has been made in the economic field. In order to facilitate economic cooperation, additional agreements were made on four major issues: economic cooperation, trade, agriculture and fisheries, and transportation and shipping. As a result of all these efforts, a massive influx of Japanese capital, goods and services have steadily flowed into South Korea, and Japanese business firms began to invest into South Korea because of the cheap and abundant labor force. While this sudden rise of economic intercourse has contributed to the rapid economic development of South Korea, it also created an imbalance of trade between the two countries, and it made South Korea a debtor nation. The trade imbalance that was created by excessive South Korean imports from Japan, became worse with its intensifying trade relationship with Japan. The relaxation of trade restrictions caused a hazardous situation in the trade relationship, and it endangered the stable economy of South Korea, and caused anxiety about a possible South Korean economic dependence on Japan in the long run.

     There are three main factors bringing the prolonged negotiation process to an end in 1965: Park Chung Hee, domestic political trends in both South Korea and Japan, and the U.S.’s role. Firstly, Park Chung Hee wiped out the negative images of the historical animosity focusing on the enmity and psychological barriers beginning from the Hideyoshi invasions of the late sixteenth century when he came into power, and he changed South Korean foreign policy by adopting a more pragmatic and positive attitudes to build a cooperative relationship with Japan. Secondly, by the mid-1960s, domestic political trends in both Seoul and Tokyo favored normalization. South Korea was suffering from a rampant inflation, high unemployment, peasant unrest, and slow economic growth. Therefore, South Korea needed massive infusions of foreign capital from Japan for national economic development, and political legitimacy of Park regime. On the Japanese side, this vulnerable moment of South Korea was an opportune moment to extract a normalization agreement at the lowest cost to Tokyo. The large, untapped ROK market, and the Communist threat in East Asia were other significant factors pushing Japan for normalization. Lastly, the U.S. played a very significant role in the process. With the increasingly intense Cold War tensions in Asia, the U.S. began to press strongly for a rapid ROK-Japan treaty to consolidate the anti-communist bloc in the region. For the U.S., a stable relationship between her two major allies in the region was an immediate priority for their own political and economic benefits, as well as for the Free World. In this process, the U.S. played a subtle and supportive role by relieving pressure on both governments when the negotiation talks came to a deadlock. There lays four points behind the U.S.’s success. First, the U.S. made ROK-Japan rapprochement a top priority for Cold War policy in Asia, and highlighted the strategic importance of the treaty for regional security. Second, she acted as an interlocutor, and facilitated progress in deadlocked disputed during the course of the negotiations. Third, the U.S. statements of unadulterated support for the Park regime’s normalization efforts enhanced Park’s credibility and legitimacy, and enabled the government to parry attacks by anti-treaty forces at home. Fourth, U.S. actions relieved the Japanese about their concerns that the entire treaty project ultimately derailed by anti-treaty sentiment in Seoul by giving them the confidence that the ROK could hold up its end of a settlement in the face of strong domestic opposition.

President Park signs the Treaty on the Basic Relations on December 17, 1965, at the Blue House (Photo:

     Last but not least, the President Park Chung Hee’s role to normalize diplomatic relations with Japan is worth to be elaborated more. In contrast to Syngman Rhee, Park did not adopt an anti-Japanese national approach, and did not see Japan as a perpetual enemy, but as a source of much-needed economic assistance. As an admirer of the Meiji modernization of nineteenth century Japan, President Park looked at the situation from a pragmatic perspective in order to achieve economic gains and political stability for South Korean modernization by establishing a new, cooperative path with Japan through his strategy “rich nation, strong army”, inspired by Meiji Japan. He also aimed to strengthen the trilateral security ties between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. for common regional security interests, and to strengthen military deterrence against North Korea, and to prevent the U.S. from intervening in South Korean domestic politics. For Park, normalizing relations with Japan is an instrument of economic modernization, power consolidation, and military deterrence. Besides his eagerness, as a pragmatic and powerful military leader, Park had enough political strength to normalize relations with Japan, to take on the challenges of anti-Japanese public sentiment, to contain leftist forces in South Korea, and to forge a triangular East Asian security alignment in contrast to his predecessor Chang Myon. Park’s decision to turn to Japan was not because of his sympathy for Japan, but because of the needs of his time. South Korea had no choice but to turn to diplomacy to get the low GNP per capita, annual growth, unemployment rate, inflation, and decrease of U.S. aid under control. During this normalization talks, the U.S. was not directly involved in it, but acted as a mediator behind the scenes in seeking a settlement by applying pressure on both parties to go to the negotiation table. For the U.S. and Japan, Park’s rise to power was a window of opportunity to pursue the normalization talks on the basis of pragmatism. At the end of the normalization talks, except the issue of sovereignty over Dokdo, all the key issues including South Korea’s jurisdiction, and the status of the old “unequal” treaties were compromised. The normalization treaty failed political reconciliation, but still it laid the foundation for a better relationship in the future. Economically, South Korea’s economic growth was built by the help of Japanese assistance. Militarily, the treaty reinforced the security of both countries by consolidating the triangular security cooperation against the threat of communism in East Asia. Politically, it sowed the seeds for the development of a closer relationship on the basis of shared values and interests. In conclusion, often criticised for being a dictator, it is an undeniable truth that this new economic rationales for nurturing a robust South Korean-Japanese relationship is Park’s greatest legacy.


  • Cha, Victor D, “Bridging the Gap: The Strategic Context of the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty”, Korean Studies (1996): p. 123-160.
  • Ko, Seung K, “South Korean-Japanese Relations Since the 1965 Normalization Pacts”, Modern Asian Studies (1972): pp. 49-61.
  • Lee, Jung-Hoon, “Normalization of Relations with Japan: Toward a New Partnership” The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) pp. 430-456.
  • Oda, Shigeru, “The Normalization of Relations Between Japan and The Republic of Korea” The American Journal of International Law, (Jan/1967): pp. 35-56.

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