The leaders of South Korea and Japan promised to resume ties in a fence-mending summit – the first such meeting in 12 years – as the two neighbors seek to confront threats from North Korea and rising concerns about China.
“From now on, I would like to open a new chapter in Japan-South Korea relations through frequent visits by both sides that are not tied down by formality,” Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in Tokyo after meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Mutual visits by Japanese and South Korean leaders have been suspended for 12 years as ties soured over several issues, including a wartime labor dispute.
The shared security challenges facing both nations were on stark display just hours before the trip when North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile into the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula – the fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than one year.
During the joint statement on Thursday, Kishida said that Japan and South Korea had agreed to resume bilateral security talks in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats and had confirmed the importance of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” and working together to protect the international rules-based order.
And Yoon said he agreed to “completely normalize” its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.
“I believe the two countries should be able to share information on North Korea’s nuclear missile launches and trajectories, and respond to them,” he said.
In 2019, South Korea scrapped its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan amid a long-running dispute over forced labor by Japan during its occupation of Korea, which plunged ties to their lowest point in decades.
The summit between Yoon and Kishida is a crucial step to mend frayed relations after decades of disputes and mistrust dogged the two crucial US allies in Asia.
Yoon’s office has hailed it “an important milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.
The two leaders are expected to share a dinner of sukiyaki and “omurice” or omelet rice in English, based on Yoon’s request that he likes those dishes, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK reported.
The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of acrimony, dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.
The two normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes have continued to fester, in particular over colonial Japan’s use of forced labor and so-called “comfort women” sex slaves.
In recent years the often fraught relations have undermined efforts by the United States to present a united front against North Korea – and the growing assertiveness of Beijing.
Now, the region’s two most important allies for the US appear ready to turn a new page.
In another sign of goodwill, before the summit Japan and South Korea agreed on Thursday to drop a trade dispute that has strained relations for years.
Japan will lift export controls on high-tech materials used for semiconductors and display panels to South Korea, while Seoul will withdraw its complaint over those restrictions to the World Trade Organization.
Shared strategic interests
Much of the two neighbors’ rapprochement is driven by deepening security concerns about Pyongyang’s ever more frequent missile tests, China’s increasingly aggressive military posturing and tensions across the Taiwan Strait – an area both Tokyo and Seoul say is vital to their respective security.
Commenting on the summit, China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing opposes what it calls “the closed and exclusive circle of individual countries,” adding it hopes “Japan-South Korea relations will develop in the direction of regional peace, stability and prosperity.”
The warming ties are welcome news to Washington which has been pushing the detente.
“Our working together not only on the political front, but on the strategic front, on the deterrence front, is what North Korea is scared about. It’s also what China doesn’t want to see happen,” Rahm Emanuel, US ambassador to Japan, told CNN Thursday.
Emanuel said the US, Japan and South Korea held over 40 trilateral meetings at different levels over the past year – more than the proceeding five years combined.
“That familiarity, that institutionalized dialogue and conversation, the building of trust, was probably the greatest contribution” to the thawing of ties, he said.
Under Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s relationship with Japan was “openly combative,” said Joel Atkinson, a professor specializing in Northeast Asian international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“So this visit is significant, sending a strong signal that under the Yoon administration, both sides are now working much more cooperatively,” Atkinson said.
The thaw in relations comes after South Korea took a major step toward resolving a long-running dispute that plunged ties to their lowest point in decades.
Last week, South Korea announced it would compensate victims of forced labor under Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945 through a public foundation funded by private Korean companies – instead of asking Japanese firms to contribute to the reparations.
The move was welcomed by Japan and hailed by the White House.
Yoon has been striving to improve relations – even if it means pushing back against domestic public pressure on contentious, highly emotional issues like the compensation plan.
Apart from the growing North Korean nuclear threat, China appears to have been a big factor in Yoon’s willingness to face the domestic backlash over the compensation deal, said Atkinson, the expert in Seoul.
“The administration is making the case to the South Korean public that this is not just about Japan, it is about engaging with a wider coalition of liberal democracies,” he said.
“What South Koreans perceive as Beijing’s bullying, arrogant treatment of their country, as well as its crushing of the Hong Kong protests, threats toward Taiwan and so on, have definitely prepared the ground for that.”
Even before the pivotal move to settle the historical dispute, Seoul and Tokyo had signaled their willingness to put the past behind them and foster closer relations.
On March 1, in a speech commemorating the 104th anniversary of South Korea’s protest movement against Japan’s colonial occupation, Yoon said Japan had “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner” that “shares the same universal values.”
Since taking office, the two leaders have embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activities toward mending bilateral ties – and deepening their joint cooperation with Washington.
In September, Yoon and Kishida held the first summit between the two countries since 2019 in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where they agreed to improve relations.
Closer alignment among the US, Japan and South Korea is an alarming development to China, which has accused Washington of leading a campaign to contain and suppress its development.
But Emanuel argued it was Beijing’s own actions that pushed the countries together.
“If China wasn’t in a confrontation with India twice on the border, or the Philippines twice with the coast guard, or shooting missiles into Japan’s (exclusive economic zone), nobody would be like this,” he said.
“This is a recent development in response to China’s constant confrontation with others.”