Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Seoul on 7–8 May 2023 represents a triumph of geopolitics over the search for historical justice. Both South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Kishida are now driven by the ominous international environment, led by threats to the international order from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China.
Kishida remained cautious when responding to South Korean calls for an apology and compensation for the victims of Japan’s colonial and wartime forced labour system. These issues were compounded by later trade and security tensions. But he acted with urgency in restoring normalcy to South Korea–Japan relations and tightening cooperation on a wide range of shared concerns. These concerns spanned from regional security in the face of North Korean missile and nuclear advances to supply chain resiliency and controlling the flow of advanced electronic technology to China.
Both Japan and South Korea are embracing the strategic direction coming from Washington. They understand that their survival, both nationally and politically, depends on subordinating themselves to the US President Joe Biden administration’s global and regional priorities.
‘Korea cannot strengthen its alliance with the United States unless Korea maintains a good working relationship with Japan, and Yoon knows it very well’, former foreign minister Yu Myung-hwan, advisor to Yoon, told me. He added that ‘Chinese bullying might also have been a motivation to restore trilateral security cooperation’ and that ‘increasing North Korean nuclear threats are a good excuse for him to strengthen trilateral security cooperation’.
The compressed diplomatic calendar of early 2023 reflects the determination of both leaders — and their US backers — to accomplish the dramatic shift in relations. The shift in South Korea–Japan relations began in early March 2023 with Yoon’s decision to end deadlocked negotiations on the forced labour issue. Instead, Yoon used a South Korean fund to unilaterally offer compensation to survivors and their families who have gone to court, removing the demand for an apology and payments from Japanese companies. Within days of his decision, Yoon visited Tokyo and took important steps towards returning to a business-like atmosphere.
The Tokyo trip was necessary for Yoon’s state visit to Washington in April 2023. A diplomatic showcase of the alliance is embodied in a ‘Washington Declaration’ that strengthened extended deterrence in return for South Korea forswearing any nuclear ambitions.
There is some indication that the Biden administration now aims to create a trilateral extended deterrence dialogue. Yoon told reporters that Japan might be added to the Nuclear Consultative Group created under the Washington Declaration but his office weakened that formulation as it would undermine his achievement with South Korea. Yet a trilateral security dialogue between Japan, South Korea and the United States would convey a formidable response both to North Korea and to China, and even to a potential Chinese–Russian military axis. It would also lead to a June trilateral meeting between defence ministers which would reportedly formalise data sharing on missile defence — a goal set in 2023.
Both Yoon and Kishida made ample reference to geopolitical goals in their one public appearance together at a joint press conference. ‘We are the key US allies in Northeast Asia’, Kishida said. He also emphasised that Japan and South Korea are seeking to strengthen their deterrence and response capabilities to North Korea through a series of security alliances between Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Still, unresolved issues of historical justice could not just be put aside. Leading up to the visit, progressive and conservative South Korean media expressed expectations that Kishida would go beyond previous statements and make a personal apology — perhaps opening the door to Japanese corporate payments to victims.
Kishida, under pressure from vocal conservatives who oppose any further Japanese apology or admission of responsibility for repression in South Korea, was hesitant to go that far. But he decided to make his personal sympathy for the victims clear — telling reporters that his ‘heart aches’ over their suffering. He also offered South Korea access to the Fukushima nuclear site to allay concerns over radioactive contamination in waters being released. According to Japanese media, Kishida wanted to offer some concessions to bolster Yoon against criticism within South Korea of his eagerness to give in to Japan without much in return.
The gestures met a divided response in South Korea — progressive politicians and media were dismissive and while conservative backers of Yoon were appreciative of Kishida’s apparent sincerity, they were not overwhelmed. Former foreign minister Yu said that ‘Kishida failed to apologise directly to the Korean people and obviously lacks the political courage to do so,’ but that President Yoon ‘believes that begging the other side to apologise is not politically correct’.
This leaves historical issues still buried like landmines, not far from the surface and ready to be set off. More court hearings on forced labour victims in a separate suit against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are scheduled to start on 11 May 2023. For now, the imperatives of geopolitics will sustain the momentum created by early 2023.