As the readers recall, Yoon Suk-yeol, the new President of the Republic of Korea, advocated right from the start for enhancing ties with Japan and shifting attention from the issues of the bygone past to building a better tomorrow. His speech on March 1, 2023 and his visit to Japan on April 16-17, during which, according to critics, Yoon made a number of unilateral concessions, fit into this agenda. In addition, the two leaders agreed to resume shuttle diplomacy, or regular visits to each other’s countries.
During a speech at Harvard in April 2023, Yoon also defended his commitment to improving relations with Japan, saying that South Korea must overcome the belief that they cannot take a single step further until the historical issues are resolved. “I know there could be a lot of emotional conflict and antagonism related to the colonial period among our people…But if we cooperate well in the future, I believe that our conflict and hostility about the past will be healed to a large extent.”
The fact that there would be a return visit by the Japanese prime minister to the ROK became known in advance, but as early as April 28 the South Korean presidential administration announced that no decision had been made on the announced summit plans yet, although the Japanese media reported that Seoul and Tokyo were in talks to arrange Kishida’s visit to Seoul for May 7 and 8. Only on May 2, the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Korea officially confirmed the visit on the specified dates, and this is important, since it was expected that Kishida would visit Korea after the G7 summit in Hiroshima on May 19-21; this anticipated visit indicated his desire to quickly respond to Yoon’s decision to contact Japan.
The status of the trip is a working visit, which does not involve signing resounding declarations or even a joint statement. However, the visit was the first bilateral meeting between the leaders of Korea and Japan in 12 years to discuss outstanding issues since then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited the South Korean capital in October 2011. The last time the Japanese leader visited Korea was in February 2018, but then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and there were no negotiations.
The ROK media immediately noted that “if Kishida is to come to Seoul, he needs to express a specific stance on the historical issue and move toward sustainable and amicable relations between the two countries” and therefore “special attention is being paid to the question of whether Fumio Kishida will apologize for the forced labor mobilization of Koreans during World War II” and whether he can at least repeat the 1998 Tokyo statement, which contained phrases such as “sincere apology” and “remorse”.
It is worth recalling that relations between the two countries deteriorated severely after the ROK Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Korean plaintiffs in October 2018, claiming compensation for the forced and unpaid labor of 780,000 Koreans used by Japanese employers during the war in the Pacific. Japan vigorously contested the decision and claimed that it had no obligation to pay such compensation, citing the 1965 reparations agreement between the two countries. The result was a trade war and severed ties, but “the US sought a close partnership with South Korea and Japan in an effort to counter Chinese and Russian expansion, combined with repeated military provocations from North Korea. Against this backdrop, the US praised the Yoon administration for its efforts to build ties with Japan despite fierce internal resistance,” and US President Joe Biden, in a meeting with Yoon Suk-yeol, personally thanked him for his determination.
In March, Tokyo and Seoul agreed to overcome the accumulated contradictions caused by the historical legacy of the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), returned to cooperation under the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which includes the exchange of intelligence on North Korea and achieved trade and economic détente in the “trade war.” Japan lifted restrictions on exports to Korea of key materials used in the production of semiconductors (semiconductors account for about 20% of Korean exports). In response, Seoul withdrew a complaint filed against Japan with the World Trade Organization. On April 28, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced a plan to begin the process of re-inclusion of South Korea in the “white list” of privileged trading partners following a similar move by Seoul.
On May 7, Fumio Kishida arrived in South Korea. Upon arrival, the Japanese Prime Minister went to the Seoul National Cemetery, where not only those who died in the Korean War, but also the fighters for independence are buried, and paid tribute to the fallen.
Later that day, the summit itself took place. Yoon welcomed Kishida to the official arrival ceremony, which included the singing of the national anthems of the two countries and a joint review of the guard of honor. Yoon Suk-yeol stated that he feels “a responsibility to make South Korea-Japan relations even better than they were during their good times.” Kishida thanked Yoon for the warm welcome, saying he was glad to see the full restoration of “shuttle diplomacy” between them and hoped to exchange views on ways to move bilateral relations forward. At the end of the summit, a joint press conference was held
During the visit, Fumio Kishida received the highest level of protection, which until now had been granted only to US presidents. However, although democratic NGOs organized a series of rallies at key points (the ROK presidential residence, the Embassy of Japan, etc.), there were no serious incidents. Kishida was required to make a direct, sincere apology for Japan’s wartime crimes, including forced labor and sexual slavery, committed during the colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula by Imperial Japan in 1910-45.
In addition, environmental activists took part in the rallies, protesting against Japan’s planned dumping of radioactive wastewater resulting from the Fukushima disaster into the sea.
The main content of the meeting of the two leaders can be summarized as follows:
Routine rhetoric: the leaders of the two states promised to work on the establishment of future-oriented bilateral relations based on mutual trust; reaffirmed the intention to restore the so-called “shuttle diplomacy”; Yoon emphasized that cooperation between the two countries is necessary not only for the interests of the two peoples, but also for world peace and prosperity: “In the situation where liberal democracy, which has served as a foundation for the international community’s peace and prosperity, is under threat, South Korea and Japan, which share universal values, will have to cooperate through sturdier solidarity.”
Joint containment of the North (and China, although this was not explicitly mentioned). “Prime Minister Kishida and I share the understanding that North Korea’s nuclear and missile development poses a serious threat to peace and stability not only on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan, but also in the world,” Yoon said. The two sides announced strengthening security cooperation to counter North Korea’s nuclear missile program and consultations on regional security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. The trilateral US-ROK-Japan security cooperation has been emphasized, and talks are underway to concretize the agreement reached by the three leaders in November on real-time exchange of warning data on approaching North Korean missiles.
In this context, the possibility of interaction as part of the implementation of the “Washington Declaration” has not been ruled out. As the ROK president noted, “The Washington Declaration is not completed, and we have to fill in the details by continuing discussions, and in the process of carrying out joint planning and joint execution.”
The Economy. The process of returning South Korea to the “white list” of exports is underway as well as strengthening cooperation between the two countries in order to create a strong supply chain for semiconductor products with the participation of Korean manufacturers and Japanese suppliers of raw materials.
Ecology and more. The parties agreed to allow a group of South Korean experts to visit Japan at the end of May to verify the planned release of radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The permission is seen by Japan as a gesture of goodwill, as NGOs and the ROK media continued to be hysterical about it, despite monitoring by the IAEA. “I hope a meaningful step will be achieved in consideration of our people’s demands for a science-based and objective inspection,” Yoon said.
The position on the settlement of the issue of compensation for victims of forced labor mobilization during the years of Japanese colonial rule has not changed (through the Korean fund). Yoon confirmed that Seoul’s decision will not change, calling it the “only solution” that satisfies both the 1965 agreement that normalized bilateral relations and the 2018 decisions of the South Korean Supreme Court ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to victims. As part of the settlement of the forced labor dispute, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to form a “future partnership fund” to facilitate private exchanges and entrusted this work to the Federation of Korean Industry (FKI) and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren).
The parties also ignored historical disputes; rather, on the contrary, Yoon Suk-yeol stated that they need to “break from the perception that the two neighbors cannot take even a step forward for future cooperation without a complete resolution of their historical issues.”
However, it cannot be said that there was no apology. Kishida did not repeat the words of remorse, but said that the Japanese government’s commitment to inheriting the positions of past administrations regarding the common history of the two countries is “unwavering,” referring to the very 1998 declaration in which Keizo Obuchi expressed remorse for the “horrendous damage and pain” that Japan’s colonial rule had caused the Korean people. In addition, he stated, “My heart aches for those who had to work in harsh environments and went through difficult and sad experiences,” and when a reporter asked if his words were addressed to victims of forced labor, Kishida said that he honestly expressed his “own personal thoughts” about people who had gone through difficult experiences.
Critics, however, said that the remark was still not an outright apology, and the next day, a spokesperson for the South Korean president told the Yonhap news agency that Kishida’s remark had not been agreed in advance of the summit and came from the heart.
In another gesture marking a step forward, the two leaders agreed to jointly commemorate the Korean victims of the atomic bombing at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum during Yoon’s planned visit to Japan to attend the G7 meeting.
On May 8, Kishida held meetings with the heads of six leading concerns in South Korea, including SK Group Chairman Chae Tae-won, who now heads the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry. During his meeting with representatives of the business community of South Korea, the Prime Minister of Japan called on businessmen to work on strengthening cooperation in the field of creating sustainable global supply chains, designing advanced chips, batteries and developing other strategic industries.
On the same day, the Japanese Prime Minister met with members of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union.
The results of the visit were greeted as expected. Conservatives welcomed the visit as a sign of the return of relations to normal, and “a way out of a long and dark tunnel.” Not everything turned out as desired: “You must not expect too much at the first attempt.” It was emphasized that “South Korea will only be able to guarantee its survival by fostering trilateral security cooperation among the United States and Japan, especially in the face of the ever-advancing nuclear threats from North Korea.” Therefore “Trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan is key to South Korea’s security.”
Historical controversy has been pushed aside: the leader of the parliamentary faction, Yoon Jae-ok said, “We must not give up on the future by getting bogged down in the problems of the past. As South Korea and Japan move together towards the future, there will come a time when the two countries can share history with each other.”
The opposition Democratic Party criticized Yoon Suk-yeol for turning a blind eye to historical issues and failing to get a sincere apology from Kishida: “Why a prerequisite for the resumption of bilateral diplomacy should be the abandonment of our history.” Both party leader Lee Jae-myung and other representatives argued that the summit results reflect Yoon’s position to completely ignore the country’s history and “redress the submissive diplomacy of giving away everything.”
In a separate Facebook post, Lee urged Yoon to pursue the national interest, stating: “Restoring shuttle diplomacy without safeguarding national interest only constitutes waste of national resources.”
Yoon’s center-right critics made three points. First, Kishida received assurances from President Yoon Suk-yeol that Seoul would not stir up historical controversy, despite domestic opposition. At the same time, he himself said that his “heart ached”, but did not make an official apology. Second, Japan joins the DPRK’s extended deterrence, which will change little in substance but strengthen the symbolism of the trilateral alliance against North Korea and China. Third, Japan is one step closer to dumping contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plants into the Pacific Ocean.
North Korea strongly condemned the summit: Uriminzokkiri’s propaganda website stated that “the military collusion between South Korea and Japan, much wanted by the United States, has entered the stage for it to be recklessly carried out.” Then, on May 10, KCNA published a article by Kim Sol Hwa, a researcher at the Institute for Japan Studies of the DPRK Foreign Ministry, which noted the anti-North Korean orientation of the visit and the fact that “Japan openly revealed its attempt to get involved in the “Washington Declaration”, the most typical product of the heinous hostile policy toward the DPRK, which was devised by the U.S. and south Korean rulers.”
In contrast, the US welcomed the outcome of the South Korea-Japan summit, stating its intention to continue working closely with partners and allies to develop the Indo-Pacific region. As Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department, Vedant Patel said, “We welcomed the news from this past week that the Japan-ROK summit took place, and we commend Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon for their leadership…This is an important new chapter and a new beginning for our alliance partners and an example of real leadership.“
Seoul and Tokyo have thus taken an important step forward, but many South Koreans still believe that an official apology for crimes committed during the colonial period is the first prerequisite for improving bilateral relations. According to the results of a survey conducted by Metrix agency commissioned by Yonhap news agency on May 6-7, 55.4 percent of respondents believe so. At the same time, 43.2 percent believe that building a long-term relationship should be conducted separately from efforts to resolve historical disputes.
Uncertainty over the future trajectory of relations between Seoul and Tokyo also remains, as Japan continues to lay claim to Dokdo Island and its right-wing politicians periodically visit Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of their country’s past militarism. Abrupt steps of this kind cannot be ignored by public opinion in the ROK.
Be that as it may, the next stage of the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul triangle is the leaders’ meeting in Hiroshima, where there will probably be new steps and new statements.
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 magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”