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The Peninsula

New Relations with an Old "Frenemy"

Published May 1, 2022

Incoming President Yoon Suk-yeol’s delegation arrived in Tokyo on April 24 for meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other top officials. Building on Yoon’s message of engaging in a “future-oriented” partnership with Washington and Tokyo beyond the Korean Peninsula, the engagement suggested a subtle but important shift in the focus of the trilateral cooperation from deterring North Korea to balancing China’s assertiveness.

For the last 20 years, North Korea’s military threat motivated security cooperation between South Korea and Japan. For instance, both countries signed an intelligence-sharing agreement in 2016 to contain North Korea amid Pyongyang’s frequent nuclear and ballistic provocations. The agreement symbolized the first time that two governments agreed on the importance of trilateral cooperation with the United States.

However, Korea-Japan relations deteriorated in 2017 after the Moon Jae-in administration raised questions on the remembrance of Japan’s treatment of Koreans during WWII and Tokyo responded by removing South Korea from its preferred trading partner status in 2019.

Coming into this fraught relationship, President-elect Yoon has signaled his intention to improve the relationship. While North Korea’s provocative missile tests earlier this year may be contributing to this push, the growing public hostility toward China’s assertiveness may also act as a major driver of this policy shift. According to the Pew Research Center’s poll in 2020, the public in both Seoul and Tokyo shared unfavorable views of China. This convergence in public opinion, particularly among younger generations, may facilitate the push for further trilateral cooperation going forward.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Kayla Harris, David Lee, Sarah Marshall, and Mai Anna Pressley. Picture provided by Yoon Suk-yeol’s delegation.

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