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With the conceptual tool of “Pareto optimum” (or “Pareto frontier”), this article offers an explanation as to why the 1965 Korea-Japan normalization was achieved at that particular time. No existing single factor can sufficiently explain the outcome. The exclusive focus of the existing literature on favorable domestic and international conditions only after General Park Chung-hee’s military coup in 1961 blinds us to the long-term learning process of the two states. We also need to ask a non-question: Why was normalization so delayed even under favorable conditions at the time? Based on counterfactual analysis, this article argues that without the coup, normalization would have been achieved much faster and in a way more conducive to the genuine Korea-Japan reconciliation. The complicated political situation caused by Park’s military coup delayed rather than accelerated the normalization. Refocused analysis suggests that an America-centric approach turns our attention away from the simple but crucial fact that Korea and Japan themselves were most responsible for determining their own bilateral relations, and that the U.S. role in Korea-Japan relations was significant but not determining.