The presidents of South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo for talks that have been hailed as a turning point in their tense relationship. It happens right after North Korea launches its fourth round of missiles in a week, underscoring the importance of security over previous differences.
The presidents settled a protracted trade conflict and agreed to resume their regular visits. South Korea abandoned its protest against the World Trade Organization, and Japan agreed to relax export restrictions on semiconductor materials (WTO).
The importance of the first such meeting between the countries since 2011 is examined by the associated press.
Seoul took the initiative but wants to do more
To secure this summit, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol carried out a significant coup.
A South Korean president hasn’t been invited to Tokyo for a summit like this in 12 years.
The unpleasant history of these neighbors has hampered their friendship for many years. Japanese colonization of South Korea lasted from 1910 to the end of World War Two. Thousands of Koreans were made to work in mines and factories by Japanese forces. The sexual enslavement of women was encouraged.
While no longer recent, these scars are neither forgotten nor overlooked in this place.
President Yoon, however, abandoned his demand that Japan pays some of the slaves’ compensation last week. He concurred that South Korea will instead raise the funds. He did this to put the past behind him and focus on the security of northeast Asia.
The arrangement was described as the “greatest disgrace in our history” by the leader of the opposition. Nonetheless, it secured President Yoon’s travel to Tokyo. Diplomats in this country are subtly impressed and shocked. They view it as a courageous and clever move, particularly for a political neophyte with little prior exposure to foreign politics. Mr. Yoon worked as a lawyer up until last year.
He has made mending this broken relationship a cornerstone of his foreign policy ever since he took office. Seoul stands to gain from Tokyo sharing intelligence with Seoul and having their forces cooperate as the threat posed by nuclear-armed North Korea increases.
He also wants to win over his friend, the US, which is struggling to bind its allies together to counter China’s growth. As “a ground-breaking new chapter,” President Joe Biden praised Mr. Yoon’s Japan agreement. He sent him a formal invitation to the White House for a distinguished state visit the following day.
This denotes a new chapter for South Korea’s standing in the international community. President Yoon wants to put an end to what he perceives as his nation’s obsession with North Korea. Instead, he is considering the greater role South Korea may play by looking outward, across the Indo-Pacific. Mission accomplished if Fumio Kishida, the prime minister of Japan, extends an invitation to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.
Also, there are financial benefits to be had. Japan put export restrictions on the chemicals Seoul needed to construct its semiconductors in 2019 when tensions between the two countries were at their worst. Before the meeting on Thursday, a senior government official gave a briefing on the need of getting these lifted.
This meeting provides an opportunity to mend years of damaged trust. Seoul has made more concessions so far than Tokyo. One senior diplomat told me that South Korea had crossed the dance floor to ask its neighbor out while the lights were on and everyone was watching. Japan consented to the dance. Yet, South Korea is hoping for more.
A strategic victory for Japan as well
On his much-awaited visit, the leader of South Korea is attending a series of high-level meetings. But, local media reports that Yoon Suk Yeol will also have “omurice,” or fried rice with an egg on top, another of his favorite foods.
After their summit, according to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri, Fumio Kishida intends to accompany Mr. Yoon to the renowned restaurant Rengatei.
“Going the extra mile” is how some media stories here portrayed it – but others on social media labeled it “Omurice diplomacy”.
Officials from the foreign and defense ministries will also pick up security discussions, according to the Japanese Kyodo news agency.
Enhanced links between the two countries will undoubtedly be advantageous. Yet Japan has won in a strategic and diplomatic sense. The third-largest economy in the world is getting ready to host the G7 conference in Hiroshima in May.
The major items on the agenda will be the dangers presented by China and North Korea. Japan will be in a far stronger position to address these dangers and choose how to handle them if security ties with South Korea are strengthened.
Also, this conveys an essential message to the US. In a more unpredictable and volatile region, Tokyo wants to persuade Washington that it can still count on it as a critical partner and power broker.
This conference has important diplomatic implications. In 2019, the forced labor controversy from Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula caused the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul to deteriorate.
That year, the leaders of the two countries had a brief meeting at the G20, but it was less significant because there were no bilateral meetings.
Tokyo’s export restrictions on high-tech components like the chemicals used to create TV screens, semiconductors, and smartphone displays also contributed to the escalation of tensions.
There was enthusiasm for a new beginning when South Korea unveiled earlier this month a strategy to settle the protracted disagreement, at least among diplomats and politicians.
Both Mr. Kishida and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi applauded the action, and both sides announced talks on lifting trade restrictions put in place over four years ago.
There is no better time for this reconciliation. Not just for the two neighbors, but also for the US, their shared strategic ally.
This was “a ground-breaking new chapter of cooperation and engagement between two of the United States’ closest allies,” according to a statement from Joe Biden.
When fully realized, “their actions will aid us in maintaining and advancing our shared goal for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the official continued.
But neither leader can expect easy sailing in this situation. The hardline politicians in both countries are still riven with past animosity and mistrust.
But right now, a common and escalating threat confronts the neighbors. There are concerns that North Korea will soon conduct nuclear weapons testing as it develops more powerful and sophisticated missiles.
Washington and its allies in the Asia-Pacific are concerned about China’s aggressive regional expansion and its rumored military base project in the Solomon Islands (which Beijing denies).
Japan’s government declared last month that it believed three unidentified flying objects that had been detected over the country’s territory since 2019 had been Chinese spy balloons after the US fired down Chinese spy balloons.
The Japanese Defense Ministry announced that it would reexamine its policies regarding the use of force if a foreign balloon was to violate its airspace in the future. Yasukazu Hamada, the defense minister, had previously suggested that the government might consider shooting down such foreign balloons.
Japan is continuously concerned about any potential Chinese attack on Taiwan since it will undoubtedly draw China into the conflict. The more China pulls toward Moscow in the current conflict in Ukraine, the greater those concerns grow.
Despite having a troubled past together, Japan and South Korea now face a difficult present and an uncertain future in terms of regional security.