Breakthrough in Japan-ROK Relations: Can Both Countries Seize the Opportunity?


In the wake of the historic Japan-ROK summit of March 16, the author reviews the progress of rapprochement, identifies the opportunities and pitfalls ahead, and calls for wide-ranging cooperation in the regional and global arenas.

At a March 16 press conference by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President Yoon Suk-yeol of the Republic of Korea, Kishida hailed Yoon’s visit to Japan as “a major step” toward rebuilding Japan-ROK relations after a decade of animosity. It was, after all, the first time in 12 years that the leader of either country had visited the other solely for the purpose of bilateral talks.

Yoon took office less than a year ago (in May 2022), but his determination to mend ties between Seoul and Tokyo has already borne fruit, as evidenced by his recent visit. Ever since the presidential election campaign, Yoon has stressed the need to rebuild the bilateral relationship, and he has acted decisively on that conviction, notwithstanding the strength of anti-Japanese public sentiment in South Korea. His leadership on the issue is to be commended.

At the same time, we must recognize that the campaign to repair Japan-ROK relations faces numerous obstacles. In South Korea, there is still strong public opposition to Yoon’s Japan policy, particularly his plan to break the impasse over the compensation of Koreans who were forced to labor for Japanese companies before the end of World War II. Further minefields await our leaders, including the release of treated water from the disabled Fukushima nuclear power plant and Korean opposition to the addition of the Sado mine complex to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Both governments will need to navigate such issues carefully in order to keep bilateral friction under control. More importantly, they must steadily build on the diplomatic achievement of Yoon’s visit to ensure that it leads to sustained improvement in and renewal of Japan-ROK relations.

In the following, I look more closely at the implications of Yoon’s visit and the challenges ahead.

What Is a “Sincere Response”?

As suggested by Kishida’s statement above, President Yoon’s recent visit to Japan was a diplomatic breakthrough, signaling that a serious, concerted effort to repair a badly damaged bilateral relationship was at long last underway. At the March 16 joint press conference, Kishida praised the measures announced by the South Korean government to resolve the forced-labor dispute and noted that the two leaders had agreed to revive the Japan-ROK “shuttle diplomacy” arrangement, under which both heads of state would visit the other country for formal or informal bilateral talks at least once a year. This means Kishida needs to travel to South Korea no later than the end of 2023. Needless to say, the prime minister should undertake that trip as soon as circumstances allow and use the occasion to convey to the South Korean people his strong determination to rebuild bilateral relations.

Over the past few years, the biggest obstacle to closer ties has been a heated dispute focusing on Japanese firms’ use of Koreans as forced labor before the end of World War II. The acrimony came to a head in October 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate 15 South Korean victims of forced labor. The companies, echoing the Japanese government, rejected the ruling, arguing that it contravened the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea. In response, the victims began legal proceedings to have the firms’ South Korean assets seized by the court and liquidated to cover compensation.

On March 6 this year, Yoon announced a plan to resolve the standoff by compensating victims through a state-affiliated foundation with the help of donations from South Korean companies. It was on the basis of this arrangement that Tokyo invited Yoon to visit Japan later that month.

In South Korea, however, Yoon’s initiative elicited a sharp backlash from the victims and their supporters. Moreover, in a nationwide poll conducted by Gallup Korea the week of the announcement, only 35% of respondents favored the arrangement, while 59% opposed it because it meant there would be no apology or compensation from Japan. In today’s highly polarized political climate, South Korea’s opposition parties continue to denounce the plan.

Under the circumstances, the Yoon administration will have to redouble its efforts to win over the public, not to mention the victims and their families. But the president has also made it clear that a “sincere response” from Japan is needed to secure the nation’s understanding. Ultimately, the success of the current Japan-ROK rapprochement could hinge on Tokyo’s ability to offer such a response. The problem is that many in Japan question whether Yoon’s plan will really resolve the issue, given South Korea’s failure to abide by the terms of the “comfort women” agreement reached in December 2015.

At the March 16 summit, Kishida reassured the South Korean side that the Japanese government would stand by statements from previous cabinets, including the Joint Declaration of October 1998, apologizing for past offenses against the Korean people. He also announced that the two countries’ top economic federations would each establish a Japan-ROK “future partnership fund.” From the Japanese government’s standpoint, this may qualify as a sincere response, but South Koreans were underwhelmed. They are looking for a response that addresses their historical grievances per se, not one that offers to strengthen relations across the board. What we need going forward is a serious effort to bridge this perception gap and “get on the same page” regarding the conditions for rebuilding bilateral relations.

Rebooting Bilateral Security Cooperation

With President Yoon’s visit, Japan and South Korea have an opportunity to escape the vicious circle whereby historical disputes undermined all aspects of the bilateral relationship, including trade, security cooperation, and people-to-people exchange. At the March 16 press conference, Yoon reported that the two leaders had “agreed to speed up talks geared to boosting cooperation in a variety of sectors, including security, the economy, and human and cultural exchange.”

In the economic sphere, Japan moved to end the controls it imposed on industrial exports to South Korea in July 2019, lifting restrictions on three materials needed to produce semiconductors and displays. Seoul, in turn, agreed to withdraw the complaint it had filed with the World Trade Organization. Yoon expressed optimism that further economic progress was imminent, as the two sides agreed to embark on intensive talks aimed at restoring one another to favored trade status. Japan should follow up with prompt action to lift its remaining export controls against South Korea, a precondition for productive economic security talks.

In the security arena, Yoon pledged to “completely normalize” the Japan-ROK General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The two leaders also agreed to resume the suspended Japan-ROK security dialogue and vice-ministerial-level strategic dialogue and to initiate consultations on economic security. Trilateral Japan-ROK-US security cooperation to counter the North Korean nuclear threat has picked up steam in the months since Yoon took office. The three countries have been holding defense policy talks at various levels, and their top leaders have met twice. In a joint statement issued in Phnom Penh last November, Kishida, Yoon, and US President Joe Biden expressed their intent to share North Korean missile warning data in real time. The three countries took part in missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercises in August 2022, and they conducted joint naval drills in early April this year, following Yoon’s visit.

The Japan-ROK security dialogue held in Seoul on April 17 after a five-year hiatus was an important step toward promoting bilateral security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, but obstacles remain. Japan’s defense establishment has been particularly distrustful of the Korean side in the wake of a dispute that broke out in December 2018, when a South Korean destroyer was believed to have locked its targeting radar on a Japanese surveillance plane. To rebuild confidence, the two countries must institute measures to prevent a recurrence while engaging in high-level security dialogue. With the Yoon administration eager to beef up security cooperation with Japan, the Kishida cabinet should do what it can to arrange a “two plus two” meeting of the Japanese and South Korean foreign and defense ministers.

Cooperating in the Indo-Pacific

Yoon’s visit to Japan also provided an opportunity for Japan and South Korea to reaffirm the potential for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and the wider international community.

In the wake of the October 1998 Joint Declaration, Japan and South Korea formed a partnership to promote regional cooperation. In a joint press release following the April 2008 summit, the two nations’ leaders pledged to “join with one another in contributing to international society.” This is a collaboration with much to offer the world in terms of public goods, but that promise has been put on hold during the long freeze in bilateral relations. The movement toward rapprochement under the Yoon administration offers an opportunity to rekindle this dream.

The Yoon government has embraced the diplomatic goal of turning South Korea into a “global pivotal state” through proactive contributions to international society. In December 2022, it released a Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region, echoing Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative. At the March 2023 summit, President Yoon called for close partnership and cooperation with international society in the pursuit of both policies.

On March 17, Yoon delivered a lecture at Keiō University in Tokyo. Addressing students from Japan and South Korea, he spoke as follows (as translated by the Office of the President, Republic of Korea):

“Korea and Japan, two close neighbors, are liberal democracies that share a foundation built on universal values such as freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. This fact in itself holds a special meaning. This signifies that our two countries must assume our leadership roles together as we strive towards the common goal of peace and prosperity in the international community through solidarity and cooperation, transcending mere adherence to international norms and mutual respect.”

As it happens, Japan has also been charting a new course on foreign policy and security. Its National Security Strategy and two other key defense documents were revised at the end of last year, and in March this year—shortly after the summit with Yoon—Kishida traveled to New Delhi and announced a new plan for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. This confluence of events has presented a rare opportunity for Japan and South Korea to coordinate and cooperate on matters of regional strategy and policy. Their ability to capitalize on that opportunity could have important consequences for the future of our two countries and the entire Indo-Pacific region.

Concluding his speech at Keiō University, Yoon made a solemn pledge to the students. “As a responsible politician of the Republic of Korea,” he said, “I will do my best with courage for a bright future for the younger generations in both of our countries.” Although Yoon has four more years left in office, the outcome of the April 2024 legislative elections could have major consequences for his agenda, including his Japan policy. The obstacles to full rapprochement remain daunting. We can only hope that our two nations’ leaders have the courage to forge ahead.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, rear left, and his wife Kim Keon-hee, left, dine with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife Yūko at a sukiyaki restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district, March 16, 2023. Courtesy Cabinet Public Affairs Office; © Jiji.)

diplomacy South Korea Japan-Korea relations Yoon Suk-yeol