Japan And South Korea: The Rapprochement of Relations Amidst Threats

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The political landscape in Northeast Asia is undergoing significant change. Japan and South Korea, the two largest democracies in the region, are heading to renew their bilateral relations at the moment. Because of the new strategic leadership in this region, both Tokyo and Seoul have mended the historical animosity that existed between the two countries. Both democracies in Asia are forging new alliances with the aim of increasing security throughout the Indo-Pacific area. The rekindling of diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan has provided a diplomatic boost and more political momentum towards the establishment of a “future-oriented” bilateral partnership.

In light of the growing threats posed by North Korea, the Russia-Ukraine war and China, the leaders of South Korea and Japan have expressed a desire to deepen their bilateral ties. The expedited diplomatic agenda for the beginning of 2023 is a reflection of the determination of both leaders to bring about a new transformation in the nature of their relations with one another. The turning point in South Korean–Japanese relations occurred at the beginning of March 2023 when Yoon made the decision to resolve the issue of forced labor through negotiation with Japan. Instead of demanding an apology and payments from Japanese corporations, Yoon used a South Korean fund to make a unilateral offer of compensation to survivors and their families who had taken legal action. This action removed the need for Japanese companies to make payments. Also, Yoon made the trip to Tokyo just a few days after making his choice, during which time he took significant measures toward resuming the relations. After his trip, Kishida visited Seoul in April 2023. He emphasized the need for dynamic relations for the two Asian countries to move forward since Yoon’s trip to Tokyo in March. Tokyo and Seoul believed that unresolved historical disputes shouldn’t be a hindrance to bilateral relations in this time of global uncertainty.

Regarding Tokyo, China’s assertive intentions, the rising tensions of animosity in the region, is a destructive factor for the economic, diplomatic, and the security relations of the region. Therefore, Japan desires to collaborate with South Korea in order to guarantee that the region will continue to be stable and prosperous to continue a robust economic growth. For South Korea, the gradual rise of the North Korean nuclear test has threatened its existence. In 2022, North Korea had launched sixty-eight missiles for testing. In 2023, North Korea had reportedly fired twenty-six projectiles, including short-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It also conducted over eleven test launches in the first few months. Those tests have questioned the sovereignty of Japan and South Korea. As there has been a gradual rise in tests, it further caused a warning in Japan. Earlier in 2023, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the East Sea of Japan causing fear among its citizens. Apart from security interests, it is also important for South Korea to pursue its economic interests. Seoul is actively pursuing membership in other significant multilateral international networks such as the Group of Seven, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework project led by President Joe Biden of the United States, and the upcoming Chip 4 Alliance. This alliance includes the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This would strengthen both control and access to the manufacture of semiconductors, as well as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and growth of the massive trading bloc that spans the trans-Pacific. Both parties are looking for options in order to take advantage of these prospects and to mobilize wider regional and global networks. But to implement these goals, South Korean and Japanese leadership should take a strong stance for their interests in this region. By strengthening their economic and security links, both nations may have a better chance of achieving their policy goals with the help of these measures.

The rapprochement of relations between Japan and South Korea has been driven by multiple factors. Firstly, both countries acknowledge the strategic necessity of strengthening ties and are willing to take a political risk to make this happen. The war in Europe, China’s military assertiveness in the area, and North Korea’s never-ending ballistic missile launches have created security gaps for both countries, necessitating more collaboration to address these challenges. By doing so, a powerful message would be sent to North Korea, China, and Russia. It will indicate that the regional network of alliances and partnerships with similar goals and values is becoming more tightly knit. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol want to strengthen bilateral ties in the face of growing concerns over North Korea’s military activities and the increase of China’s influence in the region. Both Tokyo and Seoul realize that the numerous security concerns in the region have strategic implications. Secondly, Japan and South Korea share the goal of repositioning China away from the economic epicenter of Southeast and South Asia and toward the center of economic activity in the area. Thirdly, both Yoon and Kishida want to enhance security cooperation that would provide a substantial amount of information regarding their geopolitical objectives in this region. To pursue the security initiative, Kishida and Yoon have discussed reestablishing the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in order to strengthen military cooperation. This is regarded as a tangible example of the two countries’ militaries working together in the region. Two countries further came to an agreement to resume security dialogues, as well as the resolution of trade disputes that had arisen in 2019.  Lastly, this rapprochement of relations was guided by strategic interests and the implications in the Indo-Pacific. A growth in North Korea’s nuclear missile threats, including a long-range missile has created concerns in Japan and South Korea regarding to the existing rules-based order. These issues have also worked in favor of improved South Korea-Japan relations including the Yoon-Kishida summit. Even before the United States of America, Japan had already adopted its own Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. The introduction of South Korea’s very own Indo-Pacific Strategy at the end of 2022 has paved the way for expanded cooperation in a variety of areas, including development of finance, climate change, and new technologies between the two countries.

The relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has improved significantly as a direct result of Washington’s efforts. In May, President Biden traveled to Seoul and Tokyo to underline the significance that these democratic countries play in the region. The United States’ ability to provide military deterrence to Japan and South Korea is the most valuable assistance that it can offer to these two countries. In addition to the United States, other democratic countries with similar ideals place a high value on the close relations that exist between Japan and South Korea. However, it is the United States that serves as the connecting factor between the two nations providing the security umbrella. Japan and South Korea is following the geopolitical course being charted by Washington for this region. The ‘Washington Declaration’ by U.S. has extended deterrence in the region. But it has forced South Korea to forsake future nuclear ambitions. This declaration is a diplomatic showpiece is forging partnership between Japan and South Korea. Both countries are aware that the global and regional agendas of the U.S. administration is necessary to ensure their continued existence on both the national and political levels. In addition, the Indo-Pacific Strategy for this region is responsible for facilitating a trilateral summit between the three leaders that will take place in late June on the margins of the NATO Summit. Further, U.S. is currently working toward the establishment of a trilateral extended deterrence dialogue. In light of the continued missile tests conducted by North Korea, South Korea is requesting Japan to be added to the Nuclear Consultative Group. It was established as a result of the Washington Declaration for South Korea. Nevertheless, a trilateral security discussion between Japan, South Korea, and the United States would send a strong response not only to North Korea but also to China, and it would even convey a response to a prospective military axis between China and Russia.

In closing remarks, it should be mentioned that both Seoul and Tokyo are concerned about the geopolitical unpredictability caused by North Korea’s nuclear tests, China’s activities in the region, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, Japan and South Korea are worried that China would engage in similar aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, as well as toward Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory. The war in Russia-Ukraine has allowed North Korea to step up its tests of nuclear missiles. This aggressive behavior has caused a new instability in the Korean peninsula. These issues have enhanced trilateral relations between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. As a result, it has strategic ramifications for this region. In light of the current volatile environment, it is important for South Korea and Japan to work together cooperatively and coordinate their actions in order to not only protect and advance their respective national interests but also to ensure the continued existence of peace and prosperity in the region.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Modern Ghana [Link]