It has now been a year since the Yoon Suk-yeol administration was inaugurated, and during this time, relations between Japan and South Korea have made substantial progress toward normalisation.
After reaching the high point of concluding the Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration: A New Japan-Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century in 1998, the bilateral relationship subsequently deteriorated. In particular, while Shinzo Abe and Moon Jae-in were in power, tensions heightened with the combination of two factors: a conflict over historical issues and a split over North Korea policy.
Shift in foreign policy
In the South Korean presidential election in March 2022, conservative candidate Yoon was elected by a narrow margin of 0.73% of the vote, bringing about a change in government from liberal-progressive to conservative.
... it succeeded in getting the US to further commit to increasing and expanding its nuclear deterrence to South Korea in the Washington Declaration in April.
The Yoon administration attempted a policy shift in foreign affairs dubbed ABM (Anything But Moon). First, with regard to North Korea policy, it aimed to shift to a policy focused on deterrence, in contrast to the engagement emphasised by the Moon administration.
Second, it adopted “South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy”. Criticising the “strategic ambiguity” of the Moon administration, which prevented South Korea from choosing either the US or China, Yoon chose to place a relative emphasis on the alliance with the US.
Third, the government demonstrated a high level of trust in the US's extended nuclear deterrence commitments. With domestic public opinion in favour of an independent nuclear armament, it succeeded in getting the US to further commit to increasing and expanding its nuclear deterrence to South Korea in the Washington Declaration in April.
Security cooperation between Japan, the US, and South Korea is important in order to promote this new diplomacy, and Yoon judged that it would be necessary to quickly ease the tense relations between Japan and South Korea, which have thus far been an obstacle.
Yoon brought this compromise proposal with him when he visited Japan in March, and gained the consent of the Kishida administration.
In March, the Korean government announced a plan to compensate Japan's wartime forced labour victims through a public foundation funded by domestic companies. However, there has been relatively little support for this solution, with polls showing just 30% supporting it, because it did not involve direct payments from the Japanese companies who were ordered to compensate the victims by Korea's top court in 2018.
Nevertheless, Yoon brought this compromise proposal with him when he visited Japan in March, and gained the consent of the Kishida administration. In May, Kishida made a reciprocal visit to South Korea, and in this way, Japan and South Korea normalised their diplomatic relations including the exchange of summits and state visits.
On the Japanese aside, Kishida stuck to the vague phrase that the administration “takes up in its entirety the position of previous Cabinets on the recognition of the history” in March. However, in May, he expressed his personal feelings at a press conference, saying, “I myself am heartbroken that so many people suffered and grieved in the harsh circumstances at that time.”
In South Korea, many people felt that this was insufficient as it showed a lack of “remorse and apology”, but it was nonetheless seen as a “step forward”.
... there is no guarantee that Korean society will obediently yield to Yoon’s policy wishes. This is because, by the standards of Korean society, Yoon’s view of Japan and history is seen as favouring Japan.
Historical issues could come to the fore once again
The Yoon administration’s determination to improve Japan-South Korea relations appears to be unwavering, but there are other points of contention between Japan and Korea, such as the discharge of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. As such, there is no guarantee that Korean society will obediently yield to Yoon’s policy wishes. This is because, by the standards of Korean society, Yoon’s view of Japan and history is seen as favouring Japan.
In Japan, there is a sense of relief that the historical issue has been settled, but there is also anxiety that it will be overturned again if the South Korean administration changes. This is a possibility that cannot be ruled out in light of current South Korean public opinion, and the arguments of the opposition parties.
Recognising this, it is important for Tokyo to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Yoon’s government while also going beyond relations solely dependent on Yoon himself to build even stronger ties.
... it will be necessary for South Korea to introduce a policy of appeasement to bring North Korea into the framework of peaceful coexistence, as well as the need for Japan's support in this regard.
First, there is a need to have a common understanding that historical issues between Japan and Korea persist. It is inevitable, in this writer’s view, that the next joint declaration reaffirms Japan’s “remorse and apology” for past aggression and domination.
Facing challenges together
Second, the governments and societies of both countries must remember this — it is to the benefit of both Japan and South Korea to actively use positive cooperation in diplomacy to build good relations. A deterrence-oriented policy toward North Korea and a shared Indo-Pacific are necessary, but not sufficient. There will likely come a time when it will be necessary for South Korea to introduce a policy of appeasement to bring North Korea into the framework of peaceful coexistence, as well as the need for Japan's support in this regard.
Moreover, it is by no means desirable for either Japan or South Korea to escalate the US-China confrontation more than necessary, and it may be necessary for both countries to cooperate and urge the two major powers to avoid conflict.
Japan and South Korea are not only facing a common international environment; they also face identical challenges of the world’s fastest declining birthrates and ageing populations. In that sense, they could empathise with each other's problems.
Moreover, there is a limit to what Japan and Korea can do alone and there is a need to share knowledge. In fact, "shouldering problems together and sharing wisdom" should be the way forward. The normalization of Japan-Korea relations should be regarded as the first step toward such a relationship, and we should put it to good use.
Related: South Korea's 'global pivotal state' ambition is a tall order | South Korea's new Indo-Pacific strategy: Seeking the best of both worlds | It's hard to be neighbours: When will Japan advance its diplomacy with China and South Korea?