Korea Chair Explains - Olympic Perspective on South Korea-Japan Relations


By Caby Styers


The Olympics are usually a time for countries and individuals to practice sports diplomacy. A recent, notable example was with the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics and the joint women’s hockey team composed of North and South Korean athletes. South Korea and Japan have called on sport diplomacy in the past to show unity and strength with neighbouring countries. However, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics is happening against the backdrop of aggravated relations between South Korea and Japan. Recent years have seen a marked increase of tensions and stressed relations as unresolved issues from Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula re-emerge. Despite its intended apolitical nature, this year’s Olympics have acted as a catalyst to some of these political and social frustrations. 

The most recent and inflammatory issue that has emerged surrounds the territorial claims of Dokdo/Takeshima islands. South Korea calls the islands Dokdo and Japan calls them Takeshima, both claiming sovereignty of this land. This controversy is not new, but it became a focal point of South Korean outrage when a map of the Tokyo Olympic torch relay including the islets was released in July 2019, implying Japanese ownership. Many South Koreans recall a similar incident during the hosting of the Winter Olympics in 2018, in which a unified map of the Korea Peninsula included the islets. However, after a complaint from Japan and a request by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the islets were removed from the map. The inclusion of Dokdo/Takeshima on the map sparked protests from South Korean citizens, as well as from the South Korean parliament which passed a resolution denouncing the map and demanding the removal of the islets. The South Korean government has sent official complaints to the IOC. However, no action has been taken. South Korea has also held naval exercises around the islets in June which has only stoked tensions from the publics of both countries. This particular issue has led to some politicians and individuals suggesting a boycott of the Games entirely. 


How have South Korea and Japan used sports diplomacy in the past?


Hosting the Olympics and other world championships has acted as a signal of modernisation and globalisation. In 1964, Japan hosted its first Olympic Games and, in 1988, South Korea was able to as well. These Games remain important in the national consciousness of each country as moments of pride, often making appearances in pop culture. In 2002, South Korea and Japan historically co-hosted the FIFA World Cup for the first time. This was a remarkable feat of cooperation between the two countries and led into the signing of a few security agreements, such as an extradition treaty. The long-term benefits of their bilateral relations from co-hosting these games have been debated. However, the fact that the World Cup had no major incidents or challenges made it in many ways successful.

In 2018, Seoul hosted the Winter Olympics and because of the great success of the 1988 Games, it was much anticipated by the South Korean public. To add to the excitement, President Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy towards North Korea resulted in a joint women’s hockey game and a unified procession in the opening ceremony. In addition, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, attended the Games and provided, not only South Korea but other countries as well, opportunities to interact with the isolated country. While the Olympics offered a golden opportunity for diplomacy with North Korea, it also showed the strained relations with Japan. When Dokdo was included in the unified map of the Korean Peninsula, Japan was similarly outraged. This led to then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to similarly threaten a boycott of the Games. While his appearance at the opening ceremony was unclear for a time, he did eventually go despite criticism from some of his fellow Liberal Democratic Party members.


How are these issues, intensified by the Olympics, affecting foreign policy and relations?


Boycotts and political absence have been tools in sports diplomacy for decades, signalling a government’s displeasure or rejection of the state of relations with another. While the Blue House and the Ministry of Culture have reaffirmed South Korea’s participation in the Games, tensions can still be seen. President Moon will not attend the Games this year and his absence means missed opportunities for South Korean diplomacy and a strong statement of dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s posture towards South Korea. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the attendance to the Games, some leaders like President Emmanuel Macron have committed to attending the opening ceremony. When debates over a point of contention such as Dokdo/Takeshima re-emerge, other issues quickly follow and compound to affect other aspects of the political environment. Prime Minister Suga, who was elected in September 2020, and President Moon have yet to meet in person since taking office. There has been no summit between the two countries despite a number of aligned interests in the region and the global pandemic. In addition, the recent G-7 summit saw a lack of dialogue between Suga and Moon, signalling a persistence in strained relations. 

Japanese colonialism remains a sensitive subject in Korea. Demands of compensation for wartime forced labour and comfort women have stalled bilateral relations for decades. A 2019  boycott of Japanese products has continued until the pandemic and other issues, such as the release of treated radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean by Japan, continues to affect relations. As these issues and historical disagreements remain unresolved, future opportunities for cooperation on economic and security issues will continue to pass by. The Olympic Games provide a stark reminder of the limits of their partnership and a current lack of common ground. Nationalistic voices have only grown in recent years and events like the Olympics can be used to highlight differences between countries rather than their agreements. For the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, it will be up to political leadership to choose to seek open dialogue or to surrender to politically charged narratives.



About The Author


Caby Styers is a graduate student at Syracuse University studying governance, diplomacy, and international organisations. In addition to living in South Korea for two years, she has studied at Yonsei University and majored in Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a research intern at the KF-VUB Korea Chair.

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