Fumio Kishida and Yoon Suk-Yeol (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
MY HOME IN TOKYO, where I lived until 2020, was a few minutes away from the South Korean embassy. Consequently, our Sundays were somewhat surreal. This embassy (and that of China’s, also close by) was the preferred stomping grounds of ultra-nationalists, known as the uyoku dantai. These were groups of (mostly) silver-haired septuagenarians who spent their weekends riding around in Mad Max-style convoys, flying the rising sun flag that had been used by the Japanese army in its imperialist days from 1870-1945, while screeching nasty invectives against Koreans to the background of militaristic music.
To say that Japan and Korea have a rancorous relationship is like stating that the Shinkansen bullet train is fast: both obvious and understated. And yet, recent months are seeing a détente-in-the-offing, with leaders of both countries seeking a rapprochement that has taken on an urgency, given the common geopolitical dangers confronting them.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently concluded a trip to Seoul, the first such bilateral visit in 12 years. It came on the heels of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s trip to Tokyo in March. After years of tit-for-tat trade retaliations, diplomatic frigidity and a mutual sense of feeling badly done by the other side, these two leaders are attempting to turn the page on the historical disputes that have defined Japan-South Korea relations since World War II. It’s a huge ask, but one with enormous ramifications, not only for the region but globally, which is why the US is playing enthusiastic cheerleader to the developments.
We are all handcuffed to our histories, people and nations alike. In the case of Japan and Korea, the handcuffs are clasped around Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. During this time, Koreans were forced to work in wartime Japanese mines and factories in slave-like conditions. Even more contentiously, Korean women were forced or induced to service the Japanese military’s World War II brothels. Schools stopped teaching the Korean language and racism towards the Koreans—something that still lingers in the uyoku dantai mentality—was normalised.
In the intervening decades, Japan has come to believe that enough water has flown under the Tokyo bridge to have settled the matter. In 1965, a treaty between the two nations saw the resumption of diplomatic relations. Under it, Japan provided South Korea with a total of $800 million as ‘reparation fees’. But South Koreans do not judge Japan to be sincerely remorseful for its past deeds and reject the idea that the 1965 treaty is the last word on the subject. From Japan’s perspective, Seoul is an untrustworthy negotiating partner, with a penchant for reneging on agreements.
South Korean compensation claims relating to forced labour and sex work have continued to roil bilateral relations well into the 21st century. In 2018, the Supreme Court in Seoul ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean wartime labourers. Tokyo was incensed, leading to both countries removing each other from favoured trade partner lists. Japan also imposed restrictions on exporting chemicals essential to South Korea’s vital semiconductor industry.
But this Spring has seen a thaw in these frosty ties. During Yoon’s visit to Tokyo in March, he announced that Seoul would no longer demand Japanese companies compensate wartime labourers and that Korean companies would pay the reparations instead. South Korea also restored Japan’s status as a preferred trading partner.
Tokyo responded by initiating the process of returning the favour. Then in April, the first bilateral security meeting of senior diplomats and defence officials took place, following a five-year hiatus. The two sides went on to hold the first meeting of finance leaders in seven years in early May.
Given geopolitical circumstances, it is eminently rational for Japan and South Korea to bury the historical hatchet and focus on the development of closer defence and intelligence cooperation while leveraging each other’s economic strengths
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Most significantly, after his trip to Tokyo in March, Yoon declared to the press that Japan should not be expected to “kneel because of our history 100 years ago.” Subsequently, on his return visit to Seoul, while stopping short of any outright apology, Kishida told South Koreans that his “heart hurts” when he thinks of the suffering and pain experienced during Japanese colonial rule.
So, what is behind these developments? Why are the usually stony-faced leaders of these East Asian nations suddenly playing nice? Given objective geopolitical circumstances, it is in fact eminently rational for Japan and South Korea to bury the historical hatchet and focus on the development of closer defence and intelligence cooperation while leveraging each other’s economic strengths.
China’s rise and potentially hegemonic aspirations make for a perfect instance of one’s rival’s rival being an ally, metaphorically, if not in a treaty. In South Korea, recent surveys show that China has replaced Japan as the country regarded least favourably, especially by a younger demographic. The US also sees cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo as key to its plans to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.
Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper has reported that following Kishida-Yoon’s “shuttle diplomacy”, the two countries are planning to link their radars via a US system. This move would see the radar and command-and-control infrastructure used by Japan’s Self- Defense Forces and US forces in Japan become connected to the South Korean military and American forces active there. This would solve the thorny issue of two non-allied countries—Japan and South Korea—sharing delicate information instantly since they would be doing it via their mutual ally, the US.
This will be helpful to both nations given the menacing reality of North Korea’s missile testing, which is the second important reason behind efforts to mend ties. In recent months, North Korea has both fired missiles at Japan and threatened a nuclear attack on South Korea.
Closer cooperation, moreover, will help both countries decrease their vulnerability to the global supply chains that are crucial to their economies. Japan’s restrictions on exporting essential chemicals to South Korea’s semiconductor industry were a case in point. South Korea is the world’s leading producer of memory chips, but Japanese materials are essential to the manufacture of these. And China is waiting in the wings to take advantage of any disruption.
Finally, both Seoul and Tokyo share a strong common interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. If they are united, it will make it harder for Beijing to contemplate a potential invasion of Taiwan.
The million won/yen question, however, is whether any détente Kishida and Yoon establish will have staying power. In the past, both sides have signed many agreements. But the emotional politics of humiliation and nationalism have tended to scupper these.
The fact is that Yoon’s domestic standing is nebulous, and already his announcement that Japanese firms need not pay reparations to forced labourers is unpopular amongst significant segments of his domestic constituency. On Kishida’s end, the rightwing Liberal Democratic Party that he belongs to is always prickly about what they see as “concessions” to South Korea.
The litmus test for the two leaders isn’t the negotiation of a deal between themselves but the persuasion of opposition groups within their own countries to accept any such deal. There is still much waiting and watching to be done before cracking open champagne bottles is warranted. History is a nefariously tough roadblock.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open