Department of Political and Social Change seminar - The politics of restitution: transnational activist networks and Japan-Korea interstate relations


 So-called “history problems” remain the major bone of contention in contemporary Japan-South Korea (hereafter Korea) relations. Although rooted in a distant historical context- Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula- paradoxically these problems have grown more contentious over time; the post-Cold War era saw a surge in diplomatic friction over history between the two governments, particularly in relation to issues of restitution for Korean victims of Japanese colonial and war policies.

International Relations scholars have sought to explain this paradox in terms of changes in the security environment, the domestic political utility of the issues, political behavior, and unsatisfactory apologies on the part of Japan. These explanations, however varied, share two commonalities: they conceive of the essential dynamics of the “history problems” on a vertical axis- as playing out between Japan and Korea- and are state-centric in their approach.

In this seminar, I turn these analytical premises of “history problems” on their head by arguing that the spate of interstate friction in the aftermath of the Cold War can best be explained by a rise in contentious activism in Japan and Korea that began in the late 1980s. Drawing on empirical evidence gathered through fieldwork in Korea and Japan, I demonstrate that the essential dynamics of the restitution-related “history problems” have evolved on a horizontal axis: between a transnational civil society, anchored in Korea and Japan, and the two governments. These dynamics, I argue, arose as a consequence of the Japan-Korea Normalization Treaty of 1965 in which the two governments signed away the rights of individual Koreans to claim compensation. Amidst a backdrop of social and political transformation in the domestic and international sphere, however, activists in the two countries formed networks to advocate for Korean victims and together they challenged the framework of this treaty.

In this seminar I investigate how these transnational networks impacted on the two governments at the national level, and what the ramifications of this impact were for Korea-Japan interstate relations. I examine this question through three case studies of “history problems”: the issues of Korean atomic bomb victims, “comfort women” and forced laborers. The findings I present will have implications for the ongoing theoretical debate on how politics moves at the sub-state and transnational level.

About the Speaker

Lauren Richardson B.A., M.A. (Monash) LL.M. (Keio) commenced her doctoral studies in the Department of Political and Social Change in mid-2010, under the supervision of Professor Rikki Kersten. She recently completed twenty-one months of fieldwork in South Korea and Japan supported by a Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Award, the Australia-Korea Foundation at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Political and Social Change at ANU.

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