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The Japan-South Korea Thaw
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The Japan-South Korea Thaw

In the face of threats from China and North Korea, can America’s East Asian allies find ways to cooperate despite a painful past?

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a ceremony marking the 104th anniversary of the Independence Movement Day against Japanese colonial rule on March 1, 2023. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Japan and South Korea may finally be moving past the wounds that have colored their relationship for more than a century. If they do, America’s position in the Indo-Pacific and the overall stability of the region both stand to benefit. 

On Monday, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin announced that South Korean companies that received cash from the Japanese government as part of a 1965 normalization treaty would pay damages to the Korean victims of Imperial Japan’s forced labor. The step suspended Seoul’s previous demands for compensation by Japanese firms—though they can still pay into a trust in a voluntary show of good will—resolving a longstanding point of tension between the two East Asian democracies.

Japan, meanwhile, said it would consider loosening 2019 restrictions on the export of materials vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. And on Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi affirmed a 1998 joint declaration between the two countries in which Tokyo expressed its “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. 

The leaders of both Pacific powers hailed the carefully choreographed gestures as important steps toward improved ties. A third party said the same: the United States. 

The agreement will usher in a “groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies,” President Joe Biden said this week. “When fully realized, their steps will help us to uphold and advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed the president’s praise and in a meeting with South Korean National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han on Tuesday reaffirmed Washington’s “ironclad commitment” to Seoul. 

After reestablishing relations in 1965, Japan and South Korea’s relationship hit a modern low in 2018 after the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay victims of colonial-era forced labor. The next year, Japan implemented the restrictions on semiconductors sales to South Korea, which in turn filed a complaint against Tokyo at the World Trade Organization. 

Since campaigning for office in 2021, current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has publicly lamented the country’s deteriorating relationship with Japan. But the clearest signal of his desire to repair the bilateral ties came last week when, on a holiday commemorating Korea’s resistance to Japanese colonial rule, Yoon declared that Japan had “transformed from a militaristic aggressor” into “a partner that shares the same universal values” as South Korea. 

With some four years left of Yoon’s term, these developments are likely just the beginning of greater cooperation between the two countries. On Thursday, local media reported that Yoon will visit Japan for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida next week—the first trip by a South Korean leader to the island nation in four years.

Warming bilateral ties will also pave the way for more collaboration between Seoul, the U.S., and its other regional partners. On Wednesday, South Korean outlets relayed plans for the country to “proactively accelerate” its work with the Quad—a U.S.-led security partnership with Australia, Japan, and India—and confirmed Yoon’s upcoming travel to Washington, D.C., in April for a meeting with Biden.

But stronger ties between the U.S. and those Indo-Pacific countries is bad news for China, where officials have condemned Seoul’s rapprochement with Japan. Asked about the forced labor agreement on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning argued that the deal allowed Japan to avoid reckoning with its historical crimes. “Only by doing so can Japan truly earn the trust of its Asian neighbors and the wider international community,” she said. 

An opinion piece in the Chinese state-run Global Times hits another line of attack: The U.S. is asking South Korea to pay the price for its own foreign policy gains. “The sacrificing of other countries’ interests to meet its own security and economic ones is a routine practice of Washington. The U.S. has a long history of betraying other countries, including its closest allies.”

Yoon’s political rivals at home adopted a similar message, denouncing the decision to resolve forced labor debts as one-sided in favor of Japan and “humiliating” for South Korea. 

These criticisms have sparked concern that the initiative, like past efforts to resolve historical injustices, might lack sticking power. In 2018, for example, an agreement to pay reparations to Korean victims of sexual slavery fell apart under the leadership of Moon Jae-in, Yoon’s predecessor whom many viewed as tilting South Korea toward China.

Perhaps anticipating the blowback that might come from its involvement, the White House has largely stayed out of diplomatic efforts to patch things up between its two Pacific partners, at least publicly.

“It makes sense for the U.S. not to be very vocal or public on these issues that are ultimately historical disputes, because the U.S. doesn’t want to be seen as taking sides among allies,” Andrew Yeo, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and chair of its SK-Korea Foundation, said in an interview. “Privately, they’ve had dozens of trilateral meetings from the working level all the way up to the leaders. And I think in those meetings, the U.S. did encourage the two sides to resolve their differences in a very general way.”

Biden held a meeting with Yoon and Kishida on the sidelines of a NATO summit last June, and high-ranking U.S. officials including Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have met with their Korean and Japanese counterparts in recent months. In November, the leaders of the three countries released a joint strategy affirming their partnership and collective goal of “a free and open Indo-Pacific, that is inclusive, resilient, and secure.” U.S. and South Korean forces are scheduled to hold the largest military exercises on the Korean Peninsula in five years beginning next week, and trilateral military drills including Japan are likely to follow.

It’s against the backdrop of an uncertain East Asian security landscape that Japan and South Korea are putting aside their differences to forge reliable partnerships, said Kohtaro Ito, a South Korea expert at the Tokyo-based Canon Institute for Global Studies.

“Security cooperation between Japan, the United States, and South Korea will accelerate. This could include military exercises of a previously unimaginable level,” he told The Dispatch. “This shows how serious the security environment which Japan and South Korea currently face is.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.