How Have the ‘North Korea Factors’ Shaped Japan-South Korea Relations?

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Friday, January 19th, 2018

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South Korean and Japanese citizens have become increasingly influential in shaping their bilateral relations. The society-level influence on government interactions is especially clear when a publicized bilateral issue linked to national security prompts emotional involvement of mainstream citizens. For better or worse, democratic political structures of Japan and South Korea enable the two domestic societies to perform a “watchdog” function of limiting policy options available to government officials involved in publicized bilateral interactions.

This presentation will focus on the Japan-South Korea bilateral relations during the last decade in order to illustrate this point. In the midst of the fast-changing regional security environment during this period, the two societies started to re-evaluate and re-examine their respective national security identities of the Cold War period. Interestingly, these identity-shifts in both countries were first fueled by the changing domestic public attitude toward North Korea.

The normative transformations initially sparked by the ‘North Korea factors’, however, also led to a ‘mutual security anxiety’ between Japanese and South Korean citizens, as they started to embrace a sense of uncertainty about the other side’s possible future trajectory as a potential threat to their own state. This societal-level mutual distrust from the last decade continues to provide a powerful ideational limit to the government-level bilateral interactions even up to today.


Seung Hyok Lee is currently a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto, and an Associate at the Centre for the Study of Global Japan, Munk School of Global Affairs. Previously, he was a short-term Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Law, Hokkaido University, Japan, as well as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace and at the Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. He also worked as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Renison University College, University of Waterloo, and as a Visiting Scholar at the Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs. Dr. Lee received his doctoral degree in Political Science (International Relations) at the University of Toronto in 2011. His research interest is domestic society’s influence on publicized foreign policy issues, with specific focus on Japan and the Korean Peninsula. He is the author of Japanese Society and the Politics of the North Korean Threat (University of Toronto Press, 2016), “North Korea in South Korea-Japan Relations as a Source of Mutual Security Anxiety among Democratic Societies,” (The International Relations of the Asia-Pacific), and “Be Mature and Distinguish the ‘Forest’ from the ‘Trees’: Overcoming Korea-Japan Disputes Based on Incompatible National Historical Narratives.” (Asteion)


Eileen Lam


Seung Hyok Lee
Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto; Associate, Centre for the Study of Global Japan at the Munk School of Global Affairs

Louis Pauly
J. Stefan Dupré Distinguished Professor of Political Economy, Interim Director, Centre for the Study of Global Japan, University of Toronto

Main Sponsor

Centre for the Study of Global Japan


Munk School of Global Affairs

Asian Institute

Centre for the Study of Korea

Department of Political Science

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