Japan-South Korea Relations Warming Fast

Courtesy of Cabinet Public Affairs Office
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol shake hands in Phnom Penh on Nov. 13.

Next week’s summit between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will be an important indication to domestic and international observers alike of both sides’ resolve to improve bilateral relations.

Building deeper trust as true partners will be essential as Tokyo and Seoul face up to the severe security environment, epitomized by issues involving North Korea and China.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, during his regular afternoon press conference Thursday, described South Korea as an “important neighbor” that Japan should cooperate with on various issues affecting the international community. He expressed hope that bilateral ties would “develop further” as he said that Yoon will visit Japan on March 16 and 17.

The announcement of Yoon’s visit was coordinated to coincide with the South Korean government’s own statement, as both sides issued positive messages about the upcoming summit.

Only three days had passed since the South Korean government announced Monday a plan to resolve the issue of lawsuits concerning former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.

The rapid-fire positive developments reveal the intentions of both governments to swiftly repair a relationship that had deteriorated to what some analysts considered the “lowest point in the years since World War II.”

Kishida and Yoon have met and held talks twice, but both times were 30-45 minutes on the sidelines of international meetings. A bilateral summit and dinner party are being scheduled during Yoon’s visit, which is shaping up as a golden opportunity for both leaders to exchange views in-depth and build trust on a personal level.

Radars and semiconductors

Major items on the agenda at the summit likely will include working more closely together in the security field with regard to North Korea, and boosting cooperation on economic security, which is becoming increasingly important when dealing with China. These are also issues that the United States, an ally of Japan and South Korea, hopes to handle through trilateral efforts.

Tokyo, Washington and Seoul agreed during a trilateral summit in November on a plan to share North Korean missile warning data in real time. Although the coverage of Japan’s and South Korea’s radars differ because of their geographical location, enabling information to be shared in real time through the United States should significantly bolster the effectiveness of countermeasures against DPRK missiles.

Boosting defense exchanges between Japan and South Korea will be crucial for making this plan a reality. However, such exchanges have effectively been suspended since a South Korean destroyer directed its fire-control radar at a Self-Defense Forces aircraft in 2018. There are expectations that improved ties between the leaders of both nations could help mend the rift that currently exists in the defense arena.

Maintaining and strengthening a free and open Indo-Pacific region is another area in which Japan and South Korea must work together and with the United States trilaterally. Collective efforts by all three nations will be required to deal with China, which is cranking up its coercion of Taiwan and stepping up its hegemonic actions in the East and South China Seas.

The semiconductor industry holds the key to ensuring economic security. Japan possesses world-class semiconductor material technologies, and South Korea heads the pack in terms of manufacturing technologies. The involvement of Japan and South Korea will be crucial for any U.S.-led semiconductor policies designed to rein in China’s momentum in this field.

Efforts to promote Tokyo-Seoul cooperation likely will pick up speed if progress is made in talks aimed at removing strict export controls Japan has imposed on semiconductor materials and other items to South Korea in 2019.

“The inability of Japan and South Korea to cooperate because of political matters has been a huge burden for the United States,” said Meikai University Prof. Tetsuo Kotani, an expert on security issues. “I think cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea will steadily move forward.”

Seeking virtuous circle

The plan to settle the former requisitioned workers issue has faced pushback in South Korea from critics who claim Japan’s response is insufficient. Some plaintiffs have shown a willingness to continue their court battles to demand compensation directly from Japanese companies.

Consequently, the Japan plans to carefully watch whether the South Korean government can reliably put its plan into practice.

At the same time, the Japanese government accepts the necessity of supporting Yoon.

“Beefing up cooperation and opening the door to more exchanges even before that plan is carried out would create a good environment, which would make it easier to push ahead with the plan,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “We want both sides to make efforts to create a virtuous circle.”