March saw President Yoon Suk Yeol make significant efforts to realize his campaign goal of rehabilitating relations with Japan. After a trip to Tōkyō to meet with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, the president told his Cabinet that the two countries must look towards the future. “Korea-Japan relations can and must be a win-win relationship that works together and gains more together,” said President Yoon, according to a Yonhap report. Experts say the president’s bold efforts should be lauded, but warn that swaying public opinion remains critical, and significant obstacles can still derail the Yoon initiative.
President Yoon’s visit to Japan was the first bilateral meeting since 2011, and made possible through his solution to address the question of compensation for forced laborers of Imperial Japan. Earlier in March, Seoul announced the creation of a foundation that would pay restitution to laborers and avoid the liquidation of Japanese assets, a longstanding demand by Tōkyō. Public reports suggest the leaders were able to make progress in official diplomacy as well as personal friendship. After the conclusion of the official summit, the two leaders traveled to Ginza, where they had dinner with their wives before heading to a second restaurant with only interpreters present. In addition to enjoying some of President Yoon’s favorite Japanese-style western dishes, Yonhap reported that the leaders also drank beer, Korean soju, and Japanese shōchū. The agency reported that Prime Minister Kishida told his counterpart that the soju tasted like “friendship between South Korea and Japan.” The relaxed atmosphere of the meals seem to have made a positive impression from the Japanese perspective. “It is rare to have a second meeting with a foreign leader, so this was a good opportunity for the two sides to get to know each other,” a source commented to the Yomiuri Newspaper.
Officials on both sides are already acting to maintain the momentum from President Yoon’s trip. Seoul said that it would drop its complaints at the World Trade Organization, which it filed in response to Japanese export restrictions on three materials critical to the production of semiconductors. A week later, Tōkyō said that it would take steps to restore Seoul to the trade white list of trusted partners. Experts say that the leadership at the top may encourage officials in the bureaucracy to advance cooperation with their counterparts. “I think both the business community and the national security community were waiting for the green light from above,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Now that any bureaucrat or military official sees that his president is directing that this is the direction Korea will go, hopefully they will salute and carry out those orders.”
However, there may still be friction that could disrupt the two dialogues announced after the Yoon-Kishida summit. Kyodo reported that one of the dialogues would focus on cooperation on supply chain security in the manufacture of semiconductors. Mr. Klingner says that many states have looked to diversify their trading partners in light of supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and assertive Chinese practices. “Having Korea and Japan working together at the government, the business and the technology levels, is to both countries’ benefit to try to diversify away from China,” he said. However, Korea has been reticent about calling out China for its adverse policies, which Japan has often done. It may be difficult for Seoul and Tōkyō to reach a consensus. Eun A Jo, a PhD candidate at Cornell University, says that supply chain security is an area that Korea should discuss with a variety of partners, be it Japan or otherwise. “If it’s boxing out China by means of some kind of economic alliance,” she said, “probably South Korea will be more hesitant to join.”
The other dialogue announced after the summit will focus on foreign and defense policy. The working level talks, last held in March 2018, may be held as early as April of this year. Pyongyang conducted a missile test ahead of the Yoon-Kishida summit, underlining the need for Seoul and Tōkyō to find cooperation in national security Dr. Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, says that Korea and Japan need to discuss now how they would respond to a North Korean attack. “There haven’t been as much consultations in the case of such contingencies,” she said, with Japanese non-combatant evacuation operations as one example. “We can aim higher, and call for an acquisition and cross servicing agreement between the two countries,” she added. Korea and Japan have such an agreement with the U.S., which allows them to quickly transfer supplies as necessary.
President Yoon has come under fire in Korea for his efforts with Japan. In an opinion poll conducted after the summit, his disapproval rating rose to 60%, with 41% of respondents citing his diplomatic policies towards Japan as why they disapproved of him. Korean progressives have harshly denounced President Yoon’s summit with Prime Minister Kishida, and Ms. Jo warns this may make it difficult for his efforts to survive his tenure. “I don’t see the Yoon administration doing much to broaden the appeal of the deal beyond his very narrow conservative base,” she said. This could result in President Yoon’s initiatives being reversed by a future progressive leader, just like the 2015 comfort women agreement negotiated by then Foreign Minister Kishida. “I do think that there’s a lot of hinges for whether it can actually be sustainable,” she said. “And I guess I stand on the pessimistic side of that.”
Experts say President Yoon must build public support and lock in his progress on Korea-Japan relations. Dr. Darcie Draudt, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, says that this means underlining the benefits of economic cooperation with Japan. “If you talk in these very abstract terms about trade levels and deficits and supply chains, that’s very hard to understand,” she said. “But thinking about it in terms of how does it affect everyday economic life of Koreans that needs to be demonstrated.” Mr. Klingner says that President Yoon should emphasize the role Japan plays in defending South Korea from an attack by the North. He said that it remains unresolved if Japanese permission is required to access UN Command rear bases in Japan. In conversations with Korean officials, he has pointed out that tense Korea-Japan relations might discourage a Japanese leader from getting involved in a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. “Quite simply, the U.S. cannot defend South Korea without Japan,” said Mr. Klingner. “Not only the access to the bases, but some Japanese capabilities.”
President Yoon’s March efforts, while laudable, are still a work in progress. Dr. Aoki points out there are many other challenges in the bilateral relationship, from disputes over Dokdo, imports from Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, and a UNESCO World Heritage designation for the gold mines on Sado Island. But despite these factors that push them apart, there are also those that push them together. “I’m not even talking about in the areas of [the regional] security architecture, but in other areas, [like] business, education, people-to-people exchanges, [and] environmental issues,” said Dr. Draudt. “These are areas that Japan and Korea are both at the forefront of, and if they put their leadership together, [that is] a really good place for the future of both countries going forward.”
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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