Looking Forward: South Korea-Japan Dialogue and East Asian Security

A new momentum seems to be visible in South Korea-Japan relations since the Yoon administration assumed office in Seoul last year. President Yoon Seok-youl had stated his intention to re-establish cooperation with Tokyo during his presidential campaign itself, and the controversy regarding compensation to Korean workers forced to do hard labor in Japanese factories and mines during World War II was quickly identified as a major hurdle to closer ties. In 2018, a South Korean Supreme Court ruling found two Japanese companies liable to financially compensate Korean victims of forced labor.

The verdict was not received well in Tokyo, and the lessened importance of South Korea-Japan ties for U.S. geopolitical strategy under the Trump administration led Washington to keep quiet on the issue. Meanwhile, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in struggled with a stagnating economy and setbacks in North Korea contacts, at which point a hard line on Japan offered a distraction from domestic issues. For these reasons, much of the South Korea-Japan dialogue, trade, and other bilateral engagements have been suspended for the past five years.

Fresh Overtures

Against this backdrop, the Yoon administration set out to repair ties with Japan in July 2022 by setting up a consultative committee to discuss possible solutions to the wartime labor dispute. The committee floated the idea of nationally funded compensation, and departing from this suggestion ﷟working-level diplomatic talks with Tokyo were initiated in August to broker an agreement. A tangible breakthrough was reached on March 6 of this year when Foreign Minister Park Jin proposed a public compensation fund financed primarily by Korean companies. Japanese PM Kishida Fumio appreciated the outcome, calling the plan “a step toward returning the highly strained relations between Japan and South Korea to a healthy state.” When Kishida received Yoon for a presidential summit in Tokyo a week later, it was the first such meeting in 12 years, and the leaders agreed to restore intergovernmental cooperation in “common interests.”

Carried by the positive momentum and citing the need for reliable strategic partners in the deteriorating East Asian security environment, South Korea and Japan resumed bilateral security dialogue on April 18 for the first time since 2018 and both sides committed to develop “future-oriented security cooperation.” At first glance, the description of the parties’ cooperation as “future-oriented” may appear unremarkable, even redundant. Is cooperation not fundamentally a means to pursue a future goal? But in South Korea-Japan relations, “future-oriented” does not state the obvious, as interactions between the two nations have tended to be distinctly retrospective.

The diplomatic chill following the 2018 ruling is characteristic of the “one step forward, two steps back” dynamic of Japan-ROK cooperation, which has been plagued by old resentments since diplomatic relations were initiated in 1965. Due to a complex shared past, historical grievances stemming from the time of Japan’s colonial rule are sources of reoccurring disagreement, and constructive dialogue has tended to crumble when old disputes resurface. Some governments have accentuated historic differences for domestic political gain, which serves to reinforce negative perceptions rather than to foster trust and long-term stability. For this reason, the current governments are far from the first to express a wish for “future-oriented” relations. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung did the same  in 1998. Yet, 25 years later, it has proved difficult for both sides to let go of the past. What are the prospects for sustainable dialogue this time? And where does this place South Korea and Japan in the East Asian security landscape?

Risks of Regression

On March 1, President Yoon declared that Japan has transformed “from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner”. However, distrust of the Japanese is deeply rooted in Korean politics, and societal attitudes towards Japan are not easily altered on a whim. Notably, the three surviving plaintiffs of the 2018 case blankly refused the suggested publicly funded plan. Although the younger generation tends to view Japan more favorably, recent developments have been poorly received by the public and the political opposition. In addition to major disagreements  in the National Assembly regarding the plan’s legal status, many South Koreans (59 percent) oppose the plan, arguing it “fails to hold Japan accountable.”

While some analysts recognize the plan’s purpose of showcasing Yoon’s leadership and strong commitment, critics are disappointed with the minimal concessions required from Tokyo and contend that the lack of active Japanese participation removes the plan of historical responsibility and as a result fails to satisfy needs for long-term emotional healing. However, the repeated re-emergence of the issue is also a likely cause for emotional exhaustion. A few weeks following the announcement, relatives of most plaintiffs did eventually agree to the plan. This could signal a desire to move on, even if it means settling for unilateral closure.

Furthermore, progress in one issue does not automatically translate to advancement in other areas including the overall bilateral ties. The territorial dispute over Dokdo/Takeshima, an islet group that both nations claim sovereignty over, continues to be a source of conflict. In late March, the diplomatic thaw hit a bump as Japan’s education ministry approved new school textbooks that described the island as Japanese. Additionally, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo remains controversial due to its perceived symbolism for Japan’s militaristic past. In mid-April, Seoul expressed deep disappointment in PM Kishida for sending a ritual offering to the shrine. Although these issues are often treated as distinct, most share the same root grievance and are for that reason sensitive to flare-ups in other politically interlinked disputes. The discrepancy between the South Korean and the Japanese interpretations of the issues must be dealt with carefully, even if the wartime forced labor issue appears settled.

Finally, it will likely prove challenging to sustain positive momentum into the next presidential term. Since South Korean presidents are only permitted to serve one term, Yoon is set to depart office in 2027. If cooperation is to be sustained, Yoon’s personal commitment must solidify in a broader political will. Given that the political opposition slammed the Yoon-Kishida summit as the “most humiliating moment” in the country’s diplomatic history, it is far from certain that a progressive president will pick up the baton and continue the “future-oriented” policy approach towards Japan.

Need for Defense Cooperation

In the current East Asian security environment, pursuing stable relations with one’s neighbor makes a lot of sense. Growing unrest in the Indo-Pacific makes for a competitive and unpredictable geopolitical situation that increases the risk of armed conflict. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlights the risks of aggressive use of force by authoritarian regimes, China has ramped up its aggressions in the Taiwan Strait, and North Korea has pushed its missile capacity forward with unprecedented haste. As the highest stakeholder in a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula, security is a central concern to the Yoon administration. Korean government officials have stated on several occasions that improved bilateral ties with Japan are “more important than ever”, even a prerequisite for national security.

Japan is also growing increasingly worried, and Kishida has expressed “a strong sense of urgency that Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” To this end, closer defense cooperation in the spirit of a free and open Indo-Pacific between these two democratic powers may benefit their strategic position vis-à-vis regional adversaries. This could reinforce international norms of rule of law as well as amplify the retaliatory power at hand in the event of a confrontation, as Japan is seeking to significantly expand its military counterstrike capabilities. This means extra deterrence to North Korean and Chinese aggressions.

Moreover, South Korea and Japan are two key United States allies in the Indo-Pacific. Washington has encouraged the parties to reconcile for a long time by seeking to facilitate conversations within the trilateral framework whenever possible. A stable Seoul-Tokyo relationship is critical to upholding the strength of the trilateral, where dysfunctional ROK-Japan communication otherwise could be deemed the “weakest link” vulnerable to exploitation by adversaries. When the compensation plan was announced, U.S. President Biden was quick to praise the “historic” steps taken with the “groundbreaking” deal. Trilateral joint drills are good opportunities to improve coordination, and the three-way framework may furthermore offer a comfortable zone for the ROK and Japanese militaries to lay a foundation for increased familiarity and mutual trust, which could then lead to deeper cooperation in other areas.

The developments have not gone unnoticed in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un prefers for South Korea and Japan to remain at odds with one another and has a history of lodging complaints over deepened cooperation within the trilateral by launching ballistic missiles. Just as Yoon departed for Tokyo to meet with Kishida on March 16, North Korea fired a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile to express its “strong dissatisfaction”. Last September, North Korea similarly launched two short-range ballistic missiles mere hours after U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris wrapped up her visit to South Korea, and provocative activity was likewise high during the U.S.-ROK Freedom Shield 23 exercise in March. This pattern indicates that more North Korean provocations are to be expected as bilateral and trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. moves forward.

Conclusively, the recent description of South Korea-Japan ties as “future-oriented” contrasts with the nations’ history of persistent disagreements. It is difficult to predict whether parties will relapse into old patterns and continue to struggle with historical resentments, or whether they will achieve long-term positive engagement. One thing for sure though is that the degrading geopolitical situation highlights with unmistakable clarity the advantages for like-minded neighbors to stand together, and intergovernmental security arrangements at the regional level—such as one between South Korea and Japan—are gaining increasing importance in the East Asian foreign policy calculus.