The current crisis in South Korea-Japan relations partly originates from a South Korean state that is neither fully authoritarian nor liberal. In the past, right-wing, authoritarian regimes in Seoul fomented populist-nationalist contempt against Japan and North Korea, with biased and censored public discourse, but ignored public sentiments when negotiating with the target states. Since the democratic transition in the 1990s, South Korean governments no longer ignore public sentiments. Left-wing leaders and groups have pluralized public discourse about North Korea, exposing citizens to various views and information, and generated public support for Seoul to pursue rapprochement; but, no comparable groups generate counter-narratives about Japan. Instead, left-wing groups have accelerated negative portrayals and coopted state officials to censor dissenting views. Korean censorship follows illiberal trends in western democracies to ban certain public expressions considered offensive to historically victimized groups. The Korean case demonstrates that, without meaningful opposition and counter-narratives, activists for populist causes link with state power to infringe on the rights of domestic citizens and foreign entities. The remedy is liberalized public discourse that critically discusses complex realities.