Yoon Suk-yeol, the current president of South Korea, has consistently expressed a desire to strengthen bilateral ties with Japan, in contrast to his predecessor, Moon Jae-in. Yoon has said that both nations should abide by the spirit of the Japan–South Korea Joint Declaration of 1998 issued by Japanese Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung which called for overcoming the past and forging new relationships.
The president of South Korea paid his first visit to Japan on March 16–17, 2023, and met in person with Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The president of South Korea traveled to Japan for a summit meeting for the first time in 12 years.
The primary outcome of the visit are agreements on a number of fronts. In general, they were all expected because the events leading up to them had been planned well before the visit.
- Confirming the issue of compensations to Korean forced labor victims has been resolved. In fact, Japanese companies will not be involved in paying financial compensation to victims of forced labor mobilization. A dedicated fund will take care of this, using contributions from Korean and Japanese businesses.
- The end of the trade war. Tokyo is removing export restrictions on supplies and raw materials to South Korea, including chemicals needed in the production of semiconductors, which make up 20% of the country’s exports. In response, Seoul withdraws its complaints at the WTO against Japan’s activities.
- Restoration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). This includes an agreement to continue strategic dialogue in the 2+2 format at the defense deputy and foreign deputy ministerial levels; as well as security consultations at the level of military and foreign ministry heads of departments.
- General nature of rhetoric The parties expressed their willingness and desire to lay the groundwork for the development of future-oriented bilateral relations, heralding the start of a new era; security, economic issues, and humanitarian exchanges were recognized as major areas of contact. The stated aims are to revitalize shuttle diplomacy and regular exchange visits, as well as to build a Korea-Japan dialogue on economic security issues.
- Steps towards the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul Triangle. The importance of establishing a free and open Indo-Pacific region was reaffirmed, as was the significance of alliances between South Korea and the United States, Japan and the United States, and trilateral cooperation between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.
- But at the same time, Yoon and Kishida recognized the importance of restoring high-level talks between South Korea, Japan, and China.
- The parties condemned North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear missile programs and expressed readiness for a joint response, including USA participation.
- Finally, Fumio Kishida stated his intention to invite South Korea to the G7 summit in May, which will be held in Hiroshima. Bilateral and trilateral negotiations with the leaders of South Korea, the United States, and Japan are expected to take place on the sidelines of the summit. On March 20, an official invitation was issued, which Yoon Suk-yeol described as a positive step related to the summit’s outcome.
The response to the visit was likewise anticipated, and the way the assessments were divided was rather typical.
Of course, both the South Korean and Japanese governments gave the visit’s outcomes favorable reviews. According to South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, the meeting between South Korea and Japan has created fresh opportunities for the two nations’ relations. He argues that the restoration of bilateral relations in the rapidly changing situation in the world is not a choice, but a prerequisite.
The ruling People Power Party also claimed that the summit’s outcomes had had a substantial impact, particularly on the growth of the economy. “A wall of distrust and lack of communication between the two countries that has built up over the years has started to crumble,” said the PPP floor leader Joo Ho-young.
The business community also voiced positive views. According to a joint statement released on March 20 by the Federation of Korean Industries, the Korean Chamber of Commerce, the Korea International Trade Association, the Korea Federation of SMEs, the Korea Enterprises Federation and the Federation of Middle Market Enterprises of Korea, “president Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to Japan has set a turning point for improving bilateral relations, and we welcome that it has laid the foundation for economic cooperation between Korea and Japan.”. Businesspeople claimed that because “unnecessary trade obstacles” had been removed, the meeting will contribute to the ongoing expansion of trade and investment cooperation.
Washington is even more supportive of a reconciliation between Seoul and Tokyo. US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby referred to the agreements made at the summit as “truly historic,” reiterating that the United States will continue to support efforts to normalize relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
The Democratic Party was also anticipated to oppose, with its leader Lee Jae-myung denouncing the summit as the most shameful and appalling incident in Korean diplomacy history and claiming that the Yoon administration had chosen to become a puppet of the Japanese government because “Japan’s apology or regret on the biggest issue of forced labor was nowhere to be seen”.
Given that the anti-Japanese debate was still alive and well, the bulk of media outlets, including the center-right Korea Times, chastised Yoon. “Liberal or conservative, the consensus towards Japan is the same for all: apologies and compensation first, friendship and moves toward the future later,” as one critic observed.
People generally oppose this rapprochement as well. According to the most recent Realmeter poll, Yoon Suk-yeol’s support is waning; only 36.8% of respondents approve of the president’s policies, and 60.4% have negative opinions about them.
According to the author, Yoon has made a bold move in a manner comparable to how Park Chung-hee defied convention by establishing diplomatic ties with Japan in 1965. Still, he will absolutely have to deal with ramifications —mostly in domestic politics.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.”