11 July 2024

Hopes that two Asian economic giants, Japan and South Korea, would be able to reconcile and improve their soured bilateral ties at the 2020 Olympics have been dashed. South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s last-minute cancellation of his visit to Japan to attend the Olympics opening ceremony was unfortunate and has far-reaching regional ramifications. It has also underlined the deep-rooted animosity between the two countries that will take extraordinary political will to overcome. 

Japan and South Korea are two key dialogue partners that have contributed to economic development and wellbeing in the 10-member ASEAN. These two economies have been the driving force in helping the bloc’s economies integrate with global markets. Both Japan and South Korea have signature brands of various products made in the region. Their pop cultures are also popular, challenging the western trends that have long dominated.

International and regional issues will be high on the agenda of the ASEAN foreign ministers who are scheduled to hold their annual meeting virtually between August 2 and 7. Although the US-China rivalry is top of the agenda, the chilly Japan-South Korean ties are becoming a major concern to the Asean members. Other issues of concern include the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis in Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula instability and North Korean denuclearization.

Beyond the economic impacts on Asean, Japan-South Korea ties are very important components of the US-led security umbrella, which has been in place for the past seven decades. At the moment, Washington is extremely worried that the two key allies in Indo-Pacific might not be able to improve their relations, especially the much-needed security cooperation. Bilateral trade and security cooperation have been weakened by new restrictions as mutual retaliatory measures.

Japan and South Korea have not been able to come to terms with their historical animosity, especially that related to wartime Japan and its behavior related to the conscription of forced labor including the recruitment of the so-called comfort women.

Every year during the ASEAN-related meetings, leaders from Japan and South Korea will join other colleagues from dialogue partners in opportunities to meet on the sidelines and discuss their mutual problems. ASEAN would like these two key regional players to improve their ties as there are numerous projects that need their consent and cooperation.

As in previous years when Japan and South Korea join the ASEAN-related meetings, the ASEAN chair will try to facilitate a special meeting between the two protagonists. ASEAN realizes that without the dramatic improvement of these Asian economic giants, their cooperation within the ASEAN-led mechanism and projects will be seriously affected.

During the peak of the territorial dispute surrounding the Dodo Island, or Takeshima Island in 2003, Japanese and South Korean diplomats in Asean capitals worked hard to influence local perceptions of the dispute.

Japan and South Korea are also active as development partners in various projects in the sub-Mekong region. Each country has its own action plans and funding for the lower Mekong’s riparian countries, especially the rejuvenated Ayewaddy-Chaophraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS). Some of their Mekong action plans could be streamlined and initiated as joint tripartite cooperative projects.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn