January 9, 2019 | By Karl Friedhoff

History Continues Unabated between Japan and South Korea

The recent spat between Japan and South Korea over a naval encounter has once again spotlighted poor relations between two important US allies. While not new, this friction is usually driven by historical issues stemming from Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Surveys conducted in mid-2018 by the Genron NPO in Japan and the East Asia Institute in South Korea suggest there will be no détente in the offing.

But first, there is some good news in the survey results. People in both countries agree on the primary issues that need to be resolved in order to improve the relationship. Resolving the Dokdo/Takeshima issue, resolving the history education issue, and resolving the comfort women issue are the top three issues for both publics though they differ in rank order. There is also broad agreement in South Korea (82%) and Japan (56%) that the bilateral relationship is important.

Of course, the bad news is that each country’s solution to these issues is unacceptable to the other. Nearly half in Japan (48%) and a majority in Korea (57%) think relations between the two countries will stay the same in the future. This is despite the fact that a plurality in Japan (35%) and 50 percent in South Korea say that negative public sentiment is problematic and needs to be improved.

That negative public sentiment extends to views of the other country more broadly. Nearly half (46%) of Japanese hold unfavorable views of South Korea and  51 percent of South Koreans hold unfavorable views of Japan. In both cases, history is cited as the primary reason for these negative views. In Japan, 69 percent say they hold negative views of South Kora due to continued criticism of historical issues. In South Korea, 70 percent say unfavorable views are driven by Japan’s lack of remorse for its past.

This helps to explain the negative loop in which the countries are continually locked. They may agree on the problems to be resolved, but have little trust that the other country is ready to be an honest partner in resolving those problems. Until that perception changes, relations will remain beholden to historical issues with little prospect for real progress.


Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org


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