In a sign of a further diplomatic freeze, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol traveled to Tokyo this week to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. This was the first official visit of the President of South Korea to Tokyo in the last 12 years due to the tension in South Korea-Japan relations. Yun’s visit comes just 10 days after the two leaders agreed to settle a dispute over a 2018 South Korean court ruling against Japanese companies’ use of Korean forced labor during World War II.
The Yun-Kishida summit gives Seoul and Tokyo a diplomatic boost and further political momentum for a “forward-looking” bilateral relationship. The meeting is also a good promise for strengthening US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations. It therefore has positive implications for the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. However, Yun’s government faces strong domestic backlash. Nearly 60% of South Koreans oppose Yun’s handling of the forced labor issue with Japan.
Focusing on “future-oriented” South Korea-Japan relations
Yesterday’s summit should be seen as an important step in reviving South Korea-Japan bilateral relations that began after Yun’s inauguration in May 2022. The two leaders met four times before yesterday’s meeting in Tokyo. Improved bilateral relations have also helped facilitate US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations and vice versa with the three countries having held nearly 40 trilateral meetings over the past year.
To continue the virtuous cycle, Japan announced its intention to eliminate export controls on certain chemicals that are needed to produce semiconductors and displays has been levied against South Korea since 2019, allegedly in response to a forced labor court ruling. The Minister of Trade of South Korea announced that his country will withdraw the complaint filed against Tokyo in the World Trade Organization. Both actions create an opportunity for increased economic security cooperation, including coordinating supply chains and building resilience against Chinese economic coercion.
Kishida also announced that the two countries will resume defense dialogue and strategic negotiations at the level of deputy ministers. The discussions are likely to lead to a full restoration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which the two countries signed in 2016, allowing the two sides to share classified intelligence. Improved security ties will help strengthen defenses and deterrence on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.
To promote civil society relations, Japan’s largest business federation, Keidanren, also announced plans to establish a joint scholarship fund with South Korean businesses to promote youth exchanges. A delegation of South Korean business leaders accompanied Yun to meet his Japanese counterparts on Friday. People-to-people exchanges will help cement Korea-Japan ties from the bottom up, not just from the top down.
Implications for Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
The Biden administration has been quick to praise the diplomatic rapprochement between the United States’ two closest allies. The White House and the State Department issued separate but reinforcing statements, hailing the “historic announcements” and a “breakthrough new chapter” between Japan and South Korea. While Washington encouraged both sides to seek reconciliation and created political space for dialogue in trilateral situations, Seoul and Tokyo should be considered the main drivers of recent rapprochement efforts.
A steady increase in North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, including a long-range missile test on the morning of the Yun-Kishida summit, and concerns over China’s challenge to the existing rules-based regional order have also worked to bolster South Korea’s recovery. Korea-Japan relations. The two US allies are now taking pragmatic steps to improve security cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region.
All of this bodes well for Washington, which is seeking to mobilize like-minded allies and partners to maintain regional security. As outlined in the Phnom Penh Declaration on the Trilateral Partnership between the US and Japan and the Republic of Korea in the Indo-Pacific, the Biden administration would particularly welcome its two allies to cooperate on a wide range of issues beyond Northeast Asia. Japan adopted its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy even before the US in 2018. In late 2022, South Korea released its own Indo-Pacific strategy, furthering cooperation in emerging technologies, climate change and development finance. , among others, are also regulated.
Internal political backlash
While the meeting has significant positive implications for South Korea-Japan “forward-looking” relations and, by extension, the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relationship, more work needs to be done by all parties to consolidate the new gains in bilateral relations. South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party has described the Yoon government’s forced labor deal with Japan as the “most humiliating moment” in South Korea’s diplomatic history. Similarly, the opposition chastised Yun for ending his meeting with Kishida without apologizing. A recent Gallup poll found that 59% of South Koreans also oppose Yoon’s “unilateral gesture” toward Japan. By allowing South Korean rather than Japanese companies to compensate the victims, opponents believe Yun ceded too much territory to Japan.
Lest domestic politics once again torpedo Korea-Japan relations, Tokyo could provide Yun’s government with greater diplomatic cover by meeting Seoul halfway on the reparations fund. So far, the Japanese business community has not indicated whether it will voluntarily invest. Yun also stated that his government would not require Japanese companies to invest in the fund. However, such proposals could help quell protests in South Korea, or at least highlight the intractable position of those Koreans unwilling to make any compromises to improve South Korea-Japan ties.
A sincere apology for the problem, even if a previous apology, such as that given by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in 1998. Korean relations.’ Of course, Kishida faces his own domestic obstacles to making further gestures that appear to go beyond the 1965 bilateral agreement, which Tokyo insists fully settled all reparations issues. However, for this deal to work, Japan will need to show sincerity, flexibility and show as much courage as Yun has shown in going this route. South Korea’s political opposition should then exercise restraint in canceling the Yoon-Kishida deal in the future.
The statesmanship exercised by Yoon and Kishida enabled the two leaders to reach an important milestone in bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan. Historical issues will inevitably resurface in South Korea-Japan relations, but a series of diplomatic steps taken between the two countries over the past year provides an opportunity to further deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.