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International Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Requires Shared Freedoms, Not Enemies 

Durable international ties depend on shared values and material interests, and for democracies, the foundation of such is ultimately individual liberty.



A protester points a finger opposing the efforts of the South Korean group, End Comfort Women Fraud, in Berlin.

A notable theme among international relations (IR) experts and government officials is that international alliances require a shared enemy. This was evident, for example, at the November 17 2023 Seoul Diplomacy Forum (SDF). Sponsored by South Korea's conservative Yoon Suk-yeol Administration, SDF panelists stressed the shared threats from nuclear-armed autocracies China and North Korea to justify international cooperation, and even a formal alliance, among democratic South Korea, Japan, and the United States. 

Certainly, China and North Korea (DPRK) are repressive autocracies. However, this is not sufficient to create or sustain durable alliances. Attempts to do so by exaggerating their threats undermine domestic liberties. Forging a truly durable alliance of democracies requires not shared enemies, but shared freedoms that create common values and interests.  

Comfort Woman History
A Japan-South Korea joint symposium was held in Seoul on September 5 to freely discuss perspectives on the comfort women issue. (©Sankei by Norio Sakurai)

Moving Beyond 'Shared Enemy' Alliances

For "realist" IR theorists, such as Michael Beckley, alliances are not built on altruistic goals. Rather, they are built by "fear and loathing of a shared enemy" The shared enemy thesis is a version of the "in-group/out-group" distinction in social psychology. There, actors develop ingroup unity (e.g., alliance) by distinguishing themselves from an outgroup that is framed as homogeneous and as possessing negative qualities ("evil autocracies").  

Whatever the merits of this theory, it incentivizes alliance proponents to negatively frame (or demonize) particular regimes. Thus, some conservatives contribute to or do not criticize, the dissemination of empirically contested claims. For instance, about TikTok's spying on Americans. Or that North Korean officials executed a woman for watching a Hollywood movie. 

This "fear and loathing" campaign contributes to ever-increasing punitive sanctions and lawsuits against the targeted regime. It also leads to restrictions on the civil liberties of their alleged domestic agents, such as prosecuting allegedly pro-China professors for sharing sensitive technology or banning pro-North Korean peace activists from public festivals.

Dissenting Views in South Korea

The suppression of alleged domestic agents is most severe in South Korea. Ruling conservatives, including President Yoon, label left-wing opponents as "forces of communist totalitarianism [disguising] themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists" (Yonhap, August 15, 2023). They have historically enforced the National Security Law to prosecute citizens accused of disseminating North Korean propaganda or contacting North Korean representatives. 

Lee Yong-soo, a former comfort woman, attending a Wednesday Rally. In 2020, Lee held press conferences accusing Yoon Mee-hyang and the Korean Council of taking advantage of former comfort women. (Justice for Comfort Women's Facebook post)

Progressives, too, are Not Innocent

Conversely, some progressives, who sympathize with China or North Korea, stress a different version of ingroup-outgroup. That is those who profess to be proponents of racial and social justice against imperialism and militarism. Visible in Japan and the US, and highly influential in South Korea, this anti-imperial left contributes, or does not object, to the dissemination of empirically contested claims. For instance, they say the Japanese government (Tokyo) released highly radioactive water from Fukushima, or the US and South Korean militaries collaborated in medically torturing and forcibly sterilizing sex workers. Or claims that the Japanese military abducted 200,000 Korean women to work as sex slaves.

South Korean prosecutors, mostly in left-leaning administrations, use criminal defamation laws to indict "pro-Japan" academics whose classroom lectures or publications complicate the sexual slavery narrative. 

In this restrictive context, most South Koreans believe that the Japanese military forcibly abducted Korean women during the colonial era. Furthermore, they think that Tokyo's official denials prove its continuing illiberal, imperialist character. 


Left-leaning and nationalist groups draw on this belief system to continually sue Japan. That includes a November 23, 2023, appellate court ruling ordering Tokyo to compensate ₩200 million KRW ($154,000 USD) each to former comfort women victims. It further includes the court instructing Seoul to confiscate Tokyo's assets in South Korea.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin escorts Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa prior to the 10th trilateral foreign ministers' meeting in Busan, South Korea, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. Ahn Young-joon/Pool via REUTERS

Blame Doesn't Produce Reconciliation 

Competing "fear and loathing" campaigns contribute little to durable reconciliation. Rather, by suppressing domestic opponents, whether communists or collaborators, especially in South Korea, they polarize domestic politics and undermine broad, durable support for reconciliation. 

The left-leaning Moon Administration's (2017-22) campaign to reconcile with China and North Korea behind their shared history of anti-Japanese struggle, and to frame domestic opponents as collaborators, enraged conservatives. It did not survive the transition to the right-leaning Yoon Administration. 

Likewise, Yoon's campaign to reconcile with Japan based on their shared struggle against "communist totalitarians" enrages progressives. And it may not survive the next party transition. 

Durable international ties depend not on shared enemies, but on shared values and material interests, and for democracies, the foundation of such is ultimately individual liberty. The durable ties between France and Germany, as exemplified in NATO and the European Union, depend less on shared threats (former Soviet Union, contemporary Russia). Instead, they are founded more on their common values and interests as free market democracies. 

Park Yuha, professor emeritus at Sejong University, answers questions from reporters after the verdict at the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul on October 26. (©Kyodo)

Finding Common Ground in Shared Freedoms

Proponents of South Korea-Japan-US ties should focus less on demonizing "communists" at home and abroad, and more on increasing shared freedoms. They should not ignore, but encourage more debate on sensitive historical issues and past human rights violations. And they should reduce legal and social restrictions to such discourse. 

South Korea took a major step on October 26, 2023, when its Supreme Court declined to imprison Sejong University professor Park Yuha. She had been sued for publishing that many comfort women volunteered and some shared "comradely" relations with soldiers. Likewise, Japanese conservatives should firmly oppose any violence or coercion against comfort women advocates, such as mailing incendiary objects

Open discourse, free from government prosecution or social coercion, shall empower both Korean and Japanese publics to develop more nuanced, informed historical views. Those include South Korea's own use of comfort stations for US soldiers in Korea and during the Vietnam War. 

Likewise, proponents of normalizing ties with China and North Korea should not demonize their critics as "far-right fascists." Instead, they should address the communist party states' internal repressions and external aggressions. 

As I argue elsewhere, normalizing ties between Asian autocracies and Western democracies ultimately depends on enhancing individual liberties. Those include the freedom of North Koreans to work abroad and of US humanitarian workers to visit North Korea. Furthermore, they include the freedom of Chinese students to study abroad. 


How to promote market reforms and moderate repressive regimes, is a complex topic beyond the scope of this essay. But we should encourage all such efforts, and focus on nurturing shared freedoms, not shared enemies. 


Author: Joseph Yi
Joseph Yi (PhD, University of Chicago) is an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University (Seoul); a member of Heterodox Academy and cofounder of Hx East Asia Community, and a member of Korea Peace Now – LA. 

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