Improving South Korea-Japan Ties are a Big Deal. Here’s Why.

South Korea-Japan relations appear to be improving, heralding a promising development for the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific.

The latest sign of this promising trend is Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s May 7-8 visit to Seoul, the first official visit by a Japanese leader to South Korea in over 12 years.

Mr. Kishida’s visit was noteworthy given that ties between Seoul and Tokyo over the past decade have been strained over disputes involving Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945.

President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida are making efforts to build better relations and work alongside the US in order to address the growing challenges to their collective security.

Both states face common threats emanating from North Korea, China and Russia – – each of which seek to change the security architecture and rules-based order that was put in place by the United States and its allies after World War II.

The recent progress between Seoul and Tokyo is welcomed by their mutual ally – – Washington – – as well as other partners in the Pacific, i.e., India, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Much credit goes to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for his initial overtures to Japan to repair relations that were damaged under his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, and for not letting history dictate the present.

“We can’t let historical issues stop us from taking steps forward,” Yoon said on May 7 during Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s trip to Seoul.

For his part, Prime Minister Kishida demonstrated political courage by visiting President Yoon despite opposition from conservative elements in Japan.

Mr. Kishida engaged in a rarity for postwar Japanese political leaders by expressing sympathy for the Koreans who were forced into slavery during Japan’s colonial rule, saying that his  “heart aches” over Korea’s suffering during that era.

Kishida also said it was his “responsibility as prime minister of Japan to cooperate with President Yoon and South Korea for the future, continuing our predecessors’ efforts to overcome difficult periods.”

Both men should be commended for acknowledging their countries’ tragic history while looking forward to the future.

The deepening of ties between the two Asian powers not only benefits their societies but augments efforts to check North Korean aggression and counterbalance China’s rising influence in the region.

Pyongyang’s ongoing bellicosity, continued PLA incursions into its neighbors’ territorial waters and airspace as well as Xi’s heightened pressure campaign against Taiwan have unnerved Seoul and Tokyo. This has compelled Yoon and Kishida to try setting aside the past and working together to address common threats.

Additionally, Vladimir Putin’s February, 2022 invasion of Ukraine soon after entering into his “no limits” partnership with Xi Jinping sent off alarm bells in Seoul and Tokyo, heightening concerns about both leaders’ regional ambitions.

The attacks on Ukraine have also served as a wake-up call for South Korea and Japan about how their security in part relies on access to uninterrupted supplies of oil and natural gas. Both states are resource-poor and heavily dependent on other countries for energy.

To hedge their risks against the fossil fuel coercion that Putin is known to employ, Yoon and Kishida discussed ways to diversify their energy sources as well as to cooperate on liquified natural gas joint purchases and price negotiations, according to reporting by Nikkei.

Other security-related topics of discussion during the May 7-8 summit involved Seoul, Tokyo and Washington implementing faster information exchanges about North Korean missile tests; shared intelligence; and Japan possibly joining a US-South Korea U.S.-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group nuclear deterrence consultations.

The two economically interdependent powers have also started to re-establish their relationship in non-security areas. During their meetings, Mr. Yoon and Mr. Kishida discussed collaboration on material sciences, biotech, space, AI and securing supply chains.

While not providing details, the two leaders also agreed to cooperate on semiconductor chips. South Korea’s semiconductor production capabilities and Japan’s competences in producing semiconductor materials make them natural partners.

Addressing a long-held concern of Seoul, Prime Minister Kishida granted South Korean officials permission to visit the Daiichi nuclear plant in Fukushima which incurred heavy damage during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Accessing the facility will help Seoul learn more about Tokyo’s decision to release the plant’s treated radioactive water into the Pacific.

Last but not least, included in Yoon’s and Kishida’s talks were plans for increased youth and culture people-to-people exchanges between their two countries.

Despite these encouraging developments, both Mr. Yoon and Mr. Kishida face elements of domestic opposition to their decision to improve ties.

President Yoon has been pilloried for creating a fund to pay surviving forced laborers who suffered at the hands of Imperial Japan. The fund is to be paid for by South Korean companies as opposed to Japanese corporations, an arrangement that some in South Korea say lets Japan off the hook for its harsh treatment of Koreans as a colonial power.

In Japan, Prime Minister Kishida’s engagement with Seoul has led to criticism by nationalist factions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who oppose concessions on historical issues relating to Imperial Japan’s conduct. There are others in Japan who are skeptical as to whether agreements struck with South Korea will be honored by Yoon’s successor or even by Yoon himself as political pressures mount.

Domestic politics in South Korea and Japan notwithstanding, the improving ties between the two countries have come about due to a confluence of issues that are forcing their leaders to work together on common interests while not forgetting about their difficult past.

By taking steps to use their combined resources for addressing shared challenges, Seoul and Tokyo are fulfilling a long-needed role of contributing to the region’s security and economic well-being.

Making progress on overcoming Seoul’s and Tokyo’s acrimonious past can be another byproduct of their new joint efforts. This inevitably bumpy road will require sustained political courage on both sides and is deserving of support.

About the Author
Ted Gover, Ph.D. (Twitter: @TedGover) is Associate Clinical Professor and Director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University, a program focusing on Tribal law, management, economic development and intergovernmental relations. Over the years Ted has taught courses on politics for Central Texas College US Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and has served as an advisor to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its world-renowned Museum of Tolerance, helping to coordinate and support their initiatives in Asia. Additionally, Ted has worked on behalf of a number of Native American Tribes on issues ranging from Tribal sovereignty, economic diversification, healthcare and education, and he writes occasionally on American politics and foreign policy. Ted is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College, Claremont Graduate University and Soka University in Tokyo.
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