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South Korea and Japan Attempt Rapprochement

Image Credit: Global Times
South Korea and Japan Attempt Rapprochement

South Korea- Japan ties have remained tumultuous for a long time. Even though the two are United States allies and have similar security reservations vis-à-vis China and North Korea, Japan’s past colonisation of the Korean peninsula still pervades the nature of their bilateral ties. Still, the March meeting between South Korean President Yoon Seok-yul and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is believed to be successful. However, how long the bilateral conciliation can be sustained is yet to be seen.

Though Seoul and Tokyo have remained entrapped in a mutual animosity that is more than a century old, the relations witnessed heightened tension in the last four years. The bilateral rivalry has the Japanese colonisation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945 at its centre. The subsequent issues include Seoul’s allegations that Japan employed South Korean forced labour from 1910 to 1945 and mistreated South Korean women during WW II. So much so that, in a day only, Japan’s imperialist forces executed around 7500 protestors in South Korea in 1919. Therefore, the mutual tension between the two states has hindered collaboration on economic, political and military fronts. That is why the South Korean President’s March visit to Japan was the first official tour of a South Korean President to Tokyo in the last 12 years.

President Yoon Seok-yul has been reassessing the bilateral ties and was the one to begin the discussion on the compensation deal. He undertook the visit only 10 days following the signing of the agreement between the two leaders. The deal would allow the resolution of the dispute regarding a 2018 ruling of a South Korean court against Japanese firms’ past use of forced Korean labour. As a part of the compensation initiative, the South Korean President has decided to raise money to compensate the South Korean war victims rather than relying on Japan to redress its past actions. In this way, he has prioritised Northeast Asian security over the age-old demands of his people.

United States is weighing the odds for creating a trilateral arrangement with Tokyo and Seoul regarding extended deterrence. There is also the possibility of the United States expanding trilateral military exercises and information exchange.

Yet, public opinion in South Korea regarding the rapprochement could be more positive. President Yoon’s overture is viewed with much scepticism by the other political stalwarts in the country. The visit was made soon after the South Korean government made the announcement to recompense the WW-II affectees of Japan’s forced labour. However, the affectees have denounced the idea as it does not meet their call for a formal apology from Japan and retribution from the concerned Japanese firms directly.

On the other hand, the rapprochement is a win for Japan diplomatically and strategically. Tokyo will be hosting the G7 Summit in May, and the improved relations with Seoul will ensure the host a better position during the summit to discuss the threats presented by Beijing and Pyongyang, which will be the top issues on the conference agenda. Besides, soon after the visit, Japan made an announcement regarding soon lifting export sanctions on South Korea. Opposition in South Korea is not very welcoming towards these developments which goes on to show that much of the bilateral animosity is politically motivated.

Nevertheless, the renewal of relations is deemed favourable for both countries as it will allow Seoul and Tokyo to address the regional threats from Chinese regional ambitions and North Korean nuclearisation. On the one hand, Beijing’s territorial claims, like those in the South China Sea, are leading the rest of the regional actors to come together. On the other hand, North Korea increasing nuclearisation continues to be a major concern for Seoul. South Korea has made attempts to resolve its issues with Pyongyang, but nothing substantial came out of it. Therefore, a collaboration between South Korea and Japan, along with the United States, for containing and sanctioning North Korea seems to be on the cards.

Tokyo and Seoul are treaty allies of Washington; however, they have no such ties with each other. Thus the recent rapprochement is not only deemed favourable for both countries, but the visit is also considered beneficial for the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul trilateral relations. Washington was quick to appreciate the rapprochement effort as it brings definitive dividends for the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the current American administration. Similarly, the United States is weighing the odds for creating a trilateral arrangement with Tokyo and Seoul regarding extended deterrence. There is also the possibility of the United States expanding trilateral military exercises and information exchange.

However, the sustainability of the conciliation between Tokyo and Seoul will require commitment and effort from both parties. Japan needs to move forward with similar openness and fortitude as its South Korean counterpart to allow the deal to be conducive. Tokyo may facilitate the rapprochement by extending its support for the recompense. Besides, Japan can offer an honest apology on the matter. However, there are internal impediments for Tokyo in undertaking additional actions on the compensation issue other than what has already been settled. Likewise, for Seoul, the new agreement has almost four years to take root before the next South Korean presidential election in 2027.  The opposing political voices in South Korea also ought to refrain from diluting the impact of the deal in the future.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan serves as a Senior Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. Holding an MPhil in International Relations from the National Defence University, she also occasionally teaches at esteemed public sector universities.

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