South Korea and Japan: a historic meeting of friends-enemies

March 17 – Leaders agreed to resume regular visits and settled a longstanding trade dispute. Japan agreed to lift restrictions on exports of semiconductor materials, while South Korea withdrew its complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Seoul took the first step, but expect more

The president of South Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol, gave a big coup to get this summit.

This is the first time a South Korean leader has been invited to Tokyo for such a meeting in 12 years.

The relationship between these neighbors has been plagued for decades by their difficult history. South Korea was colonized by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II. Japanese soldiers forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work in their mines and factories. Women were pushed into sexual slavery.

These scars, though no longer fresh, are not forgotten or forgiven here.

But last week, President Yoon dropped his demand that Japan compensate some of the victims of his enslavement. He agreed that South Korea would raise the money for him. In doing so, he sought to put the past aside for the sake of Northeast Asia’s security.

The opposition leader called the deal “the biggest humiliation in our history.” But he won President Yoon this trip to Tokyo. The diplomats here are quietly surprised and impressed. They see it as a brave and shrewd move, especially for a political novice with no foreign policy experience. Until last year, Yoon was a lawyer.

Since taking office, he has made mending this fractured relationship a cornerstone of his foreign policy. With a nuclear-armed North Korea increasingly dangerous, Seoul will benefit from sharing intelligence with Tokyo and having their militaries work together.

It also wants to please its ally, the US, which is desperately trying to bring its partners closer together to combat the rise of China. President Joe Biden hailed Yoon’s deal with Japan as “a groundbreaking new chapter.” The next day he sent her an invitation to the White House for a prestigious state visit.

This also marks a new chapter for South Korea’s place in the world. President Yoon wants to end what he sees as his country’s tunnel vision of North Korea. Instead, he is looking out across the Indo-Pacific to the larger role South Korea can play. An invitation from Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May would be mission accomplished.

There are also financial rewards to reap. In 2019, when relations were particularly sour, Japan imposed export restrictions on the chemicals Seoul needs to build its semiconductors. Getting them to stand up was a top priority, a senior government official said before Thursday’s meeting.

This summit offers an opportunity to mend years of broken trust. So far, Seoul has conceded more than Tokyo. As a senior diplomat told me, South Korea walked across the dance floor, lights on and everyone looking, to ask their neighbor out. Japan has agreed to dance. But South Korea expects more.

A strategic victory also for Japan

The South Korean leader is holding a series of high-level talks on his highly anticipated visit. But Yoon Suk Yeol will also have one of his favorite dishes, “omurice,” or fried rice topped with an omelet, according to local media.

The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri reported that Fumio Kishida plans to take Yoon to the famous Rengatei restaurant after the summit.

“Going the extra mile” is how some media reports here described it, while others on social media called it “Omurice diplomacy.”

Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials will also resume security talks, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.

The two nations will undoubtedly benefit from closer ties. But this is a strategic and diplomatic victory for Japan. The world’s third-largest economy is preparing to host the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

The threats posed by North Korea and China will be high on the agenda. Closer security ties with South Korea will give Japan a much stronger footing as they address these threats and how to handle them.

This also sends an important message to the United States. Tokyo wants to reassure Washington that it can still be trusted as a key ally and power broker in an increasingly unstable and volatile region.

Diplomatically this summit is significant. In 2019, relations between Tokyo and Seoul collapsed over the dispute over forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The leaders of the two nations met briefly at the G20 that year, but it was not that important because there were no bilateral talks.

Tensions also rose when Tokyo imposed restrictions on the export of high-tech materials, such as the chemicals used to make smartphone screens, TV screens and semiconductors.

When South Korea announced a plan to resolve the longstanding dispute earlier this month, there was a sense of enthusiasm for a fresh start, at least among diplomats and politicians.

Kishida hailed the move and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi welcomed the effort to “return ties to a healthy state” as both sides announced talks on rolling back trade restrictions imposed nearly four years ago.

This rapprochement could not come at a more crucial time. Not onlyfor the two neighbors, but also for their common strategic ally: the United States.

Joe Biden said in a statement that this was “an innovative new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of America’s closest allies.”

“When fully realized, his steps will help us uphold and promote our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.

But this will not be easy for either of the two leaders. There is still a lot of historical tension and mistrust between the hard-line politicians of both countries.

Right now, however, the neighbors face a common and growing threat. North Korea is developing more powerful and advanced missiles, and there are concerns that it may soon test nuclear weapons.

China is aggressively expanding in the region and its alleged military base project in the Solomon Islands (which Beijing denies) has worried Washington and its Asia-Pacific allies.

Last month, after the US shot down Chinese spy balloons, Japan’s government said it suspected three unidentified flying objects seen over the nation’s territory since 2019 to have been Chinese spy balloons.

Japan’s defense ministry said it would review its rules on the use of force in connection with future violations of the country’s airspace by a foreign balloon. Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada previously hinted that the government would not rule out shooting down such foreign balloons.

Japan is also constantly worried about any possible Chinese aggression towards Taiwan, which will inevitably attract it. Those anxieties continue to deepen as Beijing leans more towards Moscow in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Japan and South Korea share a tense history, but the two countries now face an increasingly tense present and an uncertain future when it comes to regional security.

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