South Korean President Yun Suk-yeol met his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo on Thursday for a fence-mending summit, the first such visit in 12 years, as the two neighbors try to counter North Korea’s threats to growing concerns about China.
Those shared security challenges were on display just hours before the trip, when North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile into waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, the fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than a year.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemned the latest launch, calling it a “reckless act” that “endangers the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community.”
The summit between Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is a crucial step in mending frayed ties after decades of disputes and mistrust that have plagued two key US allies in Asia.
Yun’s office considered it an “important milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.
The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of acrimony dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.
The two relations were settled in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes continue to fester, particularly over colonial Japan. the use of forced labor and so-called “comfort women” as sex-slaves.
In recent years, the often strained relationship has undermined efforts by the United States to present a united front against North Korea and Beijing’s growing assertiveness.
Now, for the US, two important allies in the region seem ready to turn a new page.
In a final sign of goodwill ahead of the summit, Japan and South Korea agreed on Thursday to drop a trade dispute that has strained relations for years.
Japan will lift export controls on high-tech materials used in semiconductors and display panels to South Korea, while Seoul will withdraw its complaint to the World Trade Organization about the restrictions.
Tokyo imposed the restrictions in 2019 amid rising tensions with Seoul over a decades-long dispute over forced wartime labor.
Last week, South Korea made progress in resolving that dispute, announcing a compensation plan that does not require Japan’s direct involvement.
Much of the rapprochement between the two neighbors is due to Pyongyang’s more frequent missile tests, China’s increasingly aggressive military posture and tensions across the Taiwan Strait, which Tokyo and Seoul see as vital to their security.
The warming of relations is welcome news for Washington, which has been pushing for détente.
“Our joint work, not only politically, but also strategically, on the deterrence front, is what North Korea fears. That’s also what China doesn’t want to see happen,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel told CNN on Thursday.
Emmanuel said the US, Japan and South Korea have held more than 40 trilateral meetings at various levels in the past year, more than in the next five years combined.
“That familiarity, that institutionalized dialogue and conversation, that building of trust was probably the biggest contribution to freezing ties,” he said.
Before leaving for Tokyo on Wednesday, Yun told international media. “There is a growing need for cooperation between Korea and Japan at this time of polycrisis,” citing North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats and the disruption of global supply chains.
“We cannot afford to waste time leaving the strained Korea-Japan relationship unaddressed,” Yun said.
Under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s relationship with Japan was “openly combative,” said Joel Atkinson, a professor specializing in Northeast Asian international politics at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
“So this visit is significant, sending a strong signal that the two sides are now much more cooperative under the Yun administration,” Atkinson said.
The thaw comes after South Korea took a major step toward resolving a long-running dispute that has pushed ties to their lowest point in decades.
Last week, South Korea announced it would provide compensation to victims of forced labor during the 1910-1945 occupation of Japan through a public fund financed by private Korean companies, asking Japanese companies to contribute to the reparations.
The move was welcomed by Japan and hailed by the White House.
Yun has sought to improve relations, even if that means pushing back domestic public pressure on contentious, highly emotional issues like the reparations program.
Besides the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, China appears to have been a big factor in Yun’s willingness to face domestic opposition over the reparations deal, said Atkinson, a Seoul-based expert.
“The administration is presenting to the South Korean public that this is not just about Japan, but about cooperation with the broader coalition of liberal democracies,” he said.
“What South Koreans perceive as Beijing’s bullying, arrogant attitude towards their country, as well as suppression of protests in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan, etc., definitely set the stage for this.”
Even before the key move to settle the historic dispute, Seoul and Tokyo had signaled their willingness to put the past behind them and forge closer ties.
Speaking on March 1 to mark the 104th anniversary of South Korea’s protest movement against Japan’s colonial occupation, Yun said Japan had “transformed from a belligerent aggressor in the past into a partner” that “shares the same universal values.”
Since taking office, the two leaders have embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activities aimed at improving bilateral relations and deepening joint cooperation with Washington.
In September, Yun and Kishida held the first summit between the two countries since 2019 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, where they agreed to improve relations.
In November, the two leaders met with Biden in Cambodia at a regional summit.
The rapprochement between the US, Japan and South Korea is an alarming development for China, which accuses Washington of leading a campaign to stifle and suppress its development.
But Emanuel argued that it was Beijing’s actions that brought the countries together.
“If China hadn’t had a confrontation with India twice on the border, or the Philippines twice with the coast guard, or fired missiles into Japan’s (exclusive economic zone), nobody would be like this,” he said.
“This is the latest development in response to China’s constant confrontation with others.”