South Korea-Japan Rapprochement: A Net Positive For Bilateral Relations And Regional Stability – Analysis
By Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra*
South Korea, Japan, and the US appear to be strengthening their trilateral ties, and the main catalyst of this possibility is South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who initiated a diplomatic move in this direction by visiting Japan on 16 March 2023. This was the first bilateral summit between a South Korean president and Japanese prime minister in 12 years. President Yoon also made a six-day visit to the US in late-April. It has now been announced that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is going to travel to Seoul on 7-8 May 2023. Further, Kishida will meet US President Joe Biden during the G-7 meeting in Japan. He has also invited Yoon to participate in this meeting.
South Korea’s outreach to Japan was indeed a bold move as bilateral relations between the two countries have been strained, especially after the South Korean court verdict in 2018 on the colonial era forced labour issue. The court ruled that Japanese companies need to compensate the victims, which was deemed unacceptable by Japan. This led to a spiralling of events and substantial deterioration in bilateral trust and relations. On 6 March 2023, Yoon Suk-yeol unilaterally announced the establishment of a public foundation to compensate the victims. It paved the way for his visit to Japan. This move was particularly because of domestic political opposition in South Korea.
South Korea’s decision was based on a new foreign policy outlook under Yoon Suk-yeol, taking into account bilateral, trilateral, and regional equations. On the bilateral consideration, the new administration thinks that even though there are unresolved political, historical, and territorial issues between the two countries, they have both had substantial economic, cultural and education exchanges. Since a resolution of the contested issues is not going to be either an easy or a quick process, it wouldn’t be appropriate to hold existing cooperation hostage. It is important for Seoul and Tokyo to work together particularly in the context of the growing threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile adventures as well changing regional equations with an ‘assertive’ China.
Positive outcomes from South Korea’s rapprochement towards Japan are already visible. The finance leaders of the two countries met on 2 May, after a freeze of seven years. Earlier, security talks between officers of the South Korean and Japanese defence and foreign ministries were also announced. These talks were held on 17 April, after a gap of five years. Furthermore, trade restrictions imposed by both countries on each other are also expected to be withdrawn.
This South Korean repositioning can also be contextualised in Seoul’s desire to reorganise and strengthen trilateral linkages with the US and Japan. Bilateral friction had earlier contributed to the US having to coordinate its regional strategic vision and actions separately with the two actors. The three countries have had Defence Trilateral Talks (DTT) since 2008, Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) meetings since 1999—TCOG was convened till 2004, until the commencement of the Six Party talks)—and Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement (TISA) since 2014. Coordination through these fora however had been less than satisfactory and mostly irregular. The 13th round of the DTT held in the US on 14 April 2023, after a three year break, provides a new beginning.
South Korea’s quest for better bilateral and trilateral relations with Japan should also be seen through its larger regional policy for the Indo-Pacific. The new administration believes that South Korea should give up its foreign policy ambiguity and openly work with the US on its approach towards the region. For the same reason, Seoul released its own Indo-Pacific strategy document in December 2022 and declared itself a “global pivotal state”—the term is mentioned five times in the strategy document—because of its proactive diplomacy. The Yoon administration has decided to actively participate in the shaping of the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, South Korea and Japan share many commonalities: liberal democratic polities, market economies, emphasis on a rules-based order, peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, and so on. Both must therefore work together to realise their common goals rather than be caught up in issues of bilateral disagreement.
South Korea has taken an important step in initiating rapprochement with Japan, and Japan must reciprocate in all earnestness. Tokyo should also be aware of potential spoilers to the process and seek to avoid them. For Seoul, convincing the Korean people about the significance of their country’s partnership with Japan is going to be similarly challenging. In a changing Indo-Pacific, strong bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan is mutually beneficial and good for regional stability: this opportunity must thus be seized by both countries.
*Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.