April 2023

Footprint of a new entente

A milestone summit marks a thaw in once frosty Seoul-Tokyo relations, and could have far-reaching security repercussions, writes Richard Gregson 

Over the years, Japan-South Korea relations have had a rather bumpy ride. While both nations are non-NATO allies of the US,an atmosphere of mutual mistrust has evolved between the neighbours that face each other across the Sea of Japan, which the South Koreans have insisted be called either the East Sea or the Korean Eastern Sea, as recorded in old European maps. This mistrust stems from Japanese chauvinism arising out of its imperial past and South Korea’s demands for reparations and unqualified apologies for the atrocities committed by occupying Japanese forces in the Korean peninsula before and during World WarII.

Will South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s Japan visit, the first in 12 years, be a milestone leading to mutually beneficial ties between the two East Asian neighbours, and thus be a game-changer for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region? Yoon’s meeting with his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on March 16, which aimed to heal the decades of dispute that have dogged relations between the two countries.was hailed by the White House and the US State Department in separate statements as ‘historic’ and a ‘ground-breaking new chapter’ in Seoul-Tokyo ties.

Over the years, South Korean conservatives have tried to normalise relations with the country’s prosperous neighbour. But liberals and civil society bodies have been throwing a spanner in the works. As for the Japanese, they have been vocal in making chauvinistic statements, which have had a snowballing effect in South Korea, impairing the relationship, much to the chagrin of their Western allies.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on March 16,
EASTERN PROMISE: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on March 16

Around 58 years ago, the South Korean dictator Chung-hee Park presided over the signing of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations, normalising relations with Japan. He was able to crush the widespread opposition to the treaty at home by imposing martial law.

Tokyo, for its part, provided $300m as compensation to ‘comfort women’, forced labourers and other victims of Japanese colonialism. It also extended an additional $200m line of credit and $300m as economic aid to Seoul. But the problems persisted. Seoul took strong objection to visits by Japanese politicians to North Korea and to a proposal of Tokyo Governor Minobe to permit a pro-North Korean university in Tokyo. In 1975, another rapprochement happened when Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki and US President Ford gave a joint statement underlining that the security of the Republic of Korea (RoC) was ‘necessary for peace and security in East Asia, including Japan’.

Yet relations soured again in the early 1990s when many former ‘comfort women’emerged to demand compensation and contrition. The Japanese government initially denied any responsibility. Finally,during South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s visit to Japan in 1998, Japanese Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi offered his ‘heartfelt apology’ for the brutalities of the 1910-45 colonial occupation.

Tokyo provided $300m as compensation to ‘comfort women’ and other victims of Japanese colonialism

In 2001 things again came to a head when the Koreans foundout that school textbooks approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education described Japanese colonisation as necessary for regional security, and mention of ‘comfort women’ was redacted.These women were actually sex slaves, mostly girls under the age of 18, who were raped and tortured by 30-40 soldiers each day at Japanese military stations during World War II.In addition, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forcedto workunder the most inhumane conditions for Japanese companies during the colonial period.

An agreement was again reached, in December 2015, by Japan and South Korea on the ‘comfort women issue’. Under American pressure, Japan made an apology and agreed to pay 1bn yen ($8.3m) to fund victims, and the two nations agreed to ‘finally and irreversibly’ resolve all pending issues. The then South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, a conservative, wanted all outstanding matters to be treated as closed.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Yoon will also visit the G7 summit in Hiroshima later this year for a trilateral summit with Kishida and Biden

When the liberal left-leaning Moon Jae-in was elected president in 2017, he trashed the 2015 agreement and shut down the Japan-funded comfort women foundation launched in July 2016 to make the pay-outs. In 2019, South Korean Court rulings allowed Korean citizens to sue Japanese companies for compensation for forced labour. Earlier, in October 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court had ruled that Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, two corporations that exploited Korean labour, should pay reparations to the victims. In August 2020, a court even ordered the seizure of shares that Nippon Steel has in a joint venture with South Korean steel major Posco Holdings Inc.

The Japanese hit back, removing South Korea from its list of trusted export destinations and restricted exports of chemicalsvital for production of semiconductors and LCDs. South Korea,too,removed Japan from its list of most-trusted trading partners and initiated arbitration proceedings against Japan at the World Trade Organisation.

However, the groundwork for another rapprochement began soon after Yoon assumed the presidency last year.The US has long been prodding its most important East Asian allies to wake up to the worsening security environment, rising Chinese militarism and the North Korean nuclear threat.South Korea’s biannual defence white paper issued last year – in a departure from the earlier position of strategic ambiguity under President Moon Jae-in, which advocated peaceful dialogue with the belligerent Kim regime –identified North Korea as a ‘clear enemy’, bent on destroying South Korea with its weapons of mass destruction. Unsurprisingly, Pyongyang test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on the eve of the summit, in a show of strength.

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In 1998, Japanese PM Keizō Obuchi offered his ‘heartfelt apology’ for the brutalities of the 1910-45 colonial occupation

The final effort to normalise relations with Japan began on March 6 when Yoon’sgovernment decided to unilaterally compensate Korean victims of Japanese imperialism by establishing a foundation under the government’s aegis to pay compensation to the 15 surviving labourers and their kin – the ones who had sued Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corporation for their sufferings. The victims will be paid about U$2.03 million as ordered by the Korean Supreme Court in its 2018 ruling.

Yoon took the step despite criticism by the opposition for‘succumbing’ to Japanese pressure. But the problem Yoon faced was that neither the Japanese corporations nor the Japanese government were prepared to honour the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling. Yoon found a way out by making Korean corporations, which were the beneficiaries ofJapanese loans and grants worth US$500 million in 1965,to compensate the victims as per the court’s ruling. Seoul thus formally recognised the Treaty on Basic Relations of 1965,which technically waived all future claims against Japan for barbarism committed during the 35 years of its colonial rule.

Yoon and Kishida met four times in the run-up tothe Tokyo summit. Some 40 trilateral meetings involving US, Japanese and South Korean officials have also taken place over the last year or so. In the talks, Japan agreed to lift the export restrictions imposed on South Korea, while Yoon’s government has declared that it will withdraw the complaint filed against Japan at the World Trade Organization.

In the larger context, both countries have already been moving towards strengthening the trilateral alliance with the US. Kishida has announced Japan and South Korea will resume bilateral security talks, and stressed the importance of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and an international rules-based order.

The two countries have agreed to resume defence dialogue for the restoration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, signed in 2016. This will facilitatesharing of classified intelligence and strengthen security cooperation in close coordination with the US. Yoon will also visit the G7 summit in Hiroshima later this year for a trilateral summit with Kishida and Biden to further the alliance.

Japan’s largest business federation, Keidanren, is all set to establish a joint scholarship fund with South Korean businesses to promote youth exchanges and people-to-people contacts. A powerful delegation of South Korean business leaders accompanied Yoon to meet Japanese businessmen on the sidelines of the summit. They included Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae-yong and SK Chairman Chey Tae-won. It will be a win-win situation for businesses of both countries if bilateral relation are normalised.

Japan had adopted its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy even before the United States in 2018. With South Korea having released its own Indo-Pacific Strategy at the end of 2022, cooperation in the areas of emerging technologies, climate change, and development finance, as well as security, will get a boost.

The reverberations of the Yoon-Kishida summit could be heard well beyond the Far East. Earlier, in January, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had proposed the formation of a quadruple cooperation framework with Japan, South Korea and the United States to effectivelycounter and contain China. He made this statement during Prime Minister Kishida’s Ottawa visit. The expansion of the existing trilateral mechanism involving the US and its key Asian allies will help boost ties among liberal democracies in the Pacific Rim region, Trudeau is believed to have told Kishida,‘Should we brace up for a QUAD-Plus in the making..?’

Time will tell.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada