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Korea-Japan rapprochement creates new opportunities in the Indo-Pacific

By Andrew Yeo

In a sign of further diplomatic thawing, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol traveled to Tokyo this week to meet his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minster Fumio Kishida. It was the first official visit of a South Korean president to Tokyo in 12 years due to tensions in South Korea-Japan relations. Yoon’s visit comes just over 10 days after the two leaders struck a deal to resolve a dispute over South Korea’s 2018 court ruling against Japanese companies’ use of forced Korean labor during World War II.

The Yoon-Kishida summit gives Seoul and Tokyo a diplomatic boost and provides further political momentum to establish a “future-oriented” bilateral relationship. The meeting also bodes well for strengthened U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations. It therefore carries positive implications for the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the Yoon government faces strong domestic political headwinds. Nearly 60% of South Koreans oppose Yoon’s handling of the forced labor issue with Japan.

Focusing on a “future-oriented” South Korea-Japan relationship

Yesterday’s summit should be viewed as a significant step in an effort to restore bilateral South Korea-Japan relations that began following Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022. The two leaders had met four times prior to yesterday’s meeting in Tokyo. Improved bilateral relations have also helped facilitate U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations and vice versa with the three countries holding around 40 trilateral meetings over the last year.

To continue the virtuous cycle, Japan announced its intent to remove export controls on certain chemicals needed to produce semiconductors and displays levied against South Korea since 2019, ostensibly in response to the forced labor court ruling. South Korea’s trade minister announced that his country would withdraw a complaint filed against Tokyo at the World Trade Organization. Both actions create an opportunity for increased cooperation on economic security, including coordinating supply chains and building resilience against Chinese economic coercion.

Kishida also stated that the two countries would resume defense dialogue and strategic talks at the vice-ministerial level. The discussions will likely result in the full restoration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement which both countries signed in 2016, enabling the two sides to share classified intelligence. Improved security ties will help strengthen defense and deterrence on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

To promote relations across civil society, 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 Yoon to meet their Japanese counterparts on Friday. People-to-people exchanges will help glue Korea-Japan ties from the bottom-up, and not just the top-down.

Implications for Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy

The Biden administration has been quick to praise the diplomatic rapprochement between two of the United States’ closest allies. The White House and the State Department issued separate but reinforcing statements welcoming the “historic announcements” and the “groundbreaking new chapter” between Japan and South Korea. Although Washington encouraged both sides to seek reconciliation and created political space for dialogue in trilateral settings, Seoul and Tokyo should be credited as the main drivers of the recent efforts at rapprochement.

The steady ratcheting up of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, including a long-range missile test the morning of the Yoon-Kishida summit, and concerns regarding China’s challenge to the existing rules-based regional order, have also worked in favor of improved South Korea-Japan relations. The two U.S. allies are now taking pragmatic steps to improve security cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific.

This all bodes well for Washington, which seeks to mobilize like-minded allies and partners to sustain regional security. As outlined in the Phnom Penh Statement on U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, the Biden administration would especially 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 United States in 2018. With South Korea having released its own Indo-Pacific Strategy at the end of 2022, further cooperation in the areas of emerging technologies, climate change, and development finance, among others, are also in order.

Domestic political headwinds

Although the meeting carries significant positive implications for a “future-oriented” South Korea-Japan relationship, and by extension U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral relations, more work needs to be done by all parties to cement newfound gains in bilateral relations. South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party referred to the Yoon government’s deal with Japan on the forced labor issue as the “most humiliating moment” in South Korea’s diplomatic history. Similarly, the opposition chastised Yoon for ending his meeting with Kishida without receiving an apology. A recent Gallup poll indicated that 59% of South Koreans also opposed Yoon’s “unilateral gesture” to Japan. By letting South Korean rather than Japanese companies compensate victims, opponents believe Yoon conceded too much ground to Japan.

To prevent domestic politics from torpedoing Korea-Japan relations once again, Tokyo can provide the Yoon government greater diplomatic cover by meeting Seoul halfway on the compensation fund. Thus far, the Japanese business community has not indicated if it would make voluntary contributions. Yoon also mentioned that his government would not demand that Japanese companies put money into the fund. However, such overtures may 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 on the issue, even if a restatement of the past apologies such as one given by Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi in 1998, would also go far in signaling Tokyo’s willingness to work with Seoul toward a “forward-looking future of Japan and South Korea relations.” For sure, Kishida faces his own domestic hurdles to making additional gestures that appear to go beyond the 1965 bilateral agreement that Tokyo contends fully settled all compensation matters. For this deal to work, however, Japan must demonstrate sincerity, flexibility, and show as much courage as Yoon has shown in going down this path. South Korea’s political opposition would then need to exercise restraint from reversing 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 the series of diplomatic steps taken over the past year between the two countries provides an opportunity to further deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

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