South Korea and Japan mend fences

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the March 1st Independence Movement Day against Japanese colonial rule, in Seoul on March 1, 2023. JUNG YEON-JE / POOL / AFP

After decades of bickering and bitterness, finally, the South Korean government has shown magnanimity by reaching out to Japan. In his historic speech on 1st March, Independence Movement Day, President Yoon Suk-yeol called Japan “a partner that shares universal values.” It was, by far, the most positive gesture by Seoul, seeking to ameliorate ties with Japan. The two Asian powerhouses have been at loggerheads for some time. After he assumed the presidency, Yoon made clear that his country would like to improve ties with Japan.

To do so, the two countries must get over the dispute of 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy and Nippon Steel, had to pay compensation to Korea for forced labour during the twentieth century’s occupation by Japan. Both companies refused to comply.

According to the latest media reports, the South Korean government was planning to launch a private foundation, where Japanese firms could make voluntary donations to compensate victims of forced labour. Yoon’s speech was unprecedented, given the historical ties between the two countries. The Japanese government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has yet to give a positive answer. Tokyo has said time and again that all historical disputes with Korea were settled when they established diplomatic ties in 1965.

South Korea-Japan ties are considered some of the most important in the Indo-Pacific region. Both are key US allies, facing the threats emanating from the Korean Peninsula due to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In past years, Washington, under various presidents, has not been able to get the two countries to reconcile and mend fences. Indeed, North Korea’s missile tests, including nuclear tests, have forced the two countries to get together.

Kudos must go to President Joe Biden, who has been working hard to ensure that these two allies work closely, to counter the North Korean threat. Without cordial South Korea-Japan ties, any military and intelligence cooperation would be weak, because the US relies on these countries’ assessments. These days, the rise of China also looms large in the background, encouraging all three to come together.

South Korea has been careful in devising foreign policies which focus on cooperation, rather than confrontation. It is noticeable that, while Japan has adopted hard-line positions against China in the hi-tech sector, South Korea has been more cautious. Seoul and Beijing continue to maintain their high-value production chains related to semi-conductors.

South Korea hopes that the forced labour issue will be settled in time for the upcoming G7 summit, to be hosted by Japan in May. In more ways than one, Seoul wants to demonstrate its new foreign policy approach and image as a global pivotal state, which will focus on rules-based democratic norms and values. While praising Tokyo as a partner that shares universal values, Seoul is further ahead in pursuing a values-based foreign policy than Tokyo.

It remains to be seen how these relations will play out in the future. One constant piece of good news is that all the ties within the framework of the ASEAN plus three (Japan, China, and South Korea) are excellent. This framework has provided the longstanding impetus for regional cooperation and post-COVID 19 recovery for the whole of East Asia.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn


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