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South Korea and Japan: a Milestone Meeting of Frenemies

South Korea and Japan’s leaders have held talks in Tokyo in what has been hailed as a milestone in their fraught relationship. It comes just as North Korea fired a fourth round of missiles in a week – a reminder of why security is being prioritised over past disputes.

The leaders agreed to resume regular visits, and resolved a long-running trade dispute. Japan agreed to lift restrictions on exports of semi-conductor materials, while South Korea withdrew its complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

BBC correspondents examine the significance of the first such meeting between the countries since 2011.

Seoul made the first move – but expects more

Jean Mackenzie in Seoul

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pulled off quite the coup to get this summit.

This is the first time a South Korean leader has been invited to Tokyo for such a meeting in 12 years.

The relationship between these neighbours has been plagued for decades by their difficult history. South Korea was colonised by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War Two. Japanese soldiers forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work in its mines and factories. Women were pushed into sexual slavery.

The president of South Korea and his wife greet people
Image caption, Yoon Suk Yeol, a political novice with no experience of foreign affairs, is trying to defuse decades of mistrust

These scars, while no longer fresh, are not forgotten nor forgiven here.

But last week, President Yoon dropped the demand that Japan compensate some of the victims of its slavery. He agreed South Korea would raise the money instead. In doing so he sought to put aside the past for the sake of the security of northeast Asia.

The opposition leader branded the deal the “biggest humiliation in our history”. But it won President Yoon this trip to Tokyo. Diplomats here are quietly surprised and impressed. They see it as a brave and astute move, especially for a political novice, with no foreign policy experience. Until last year, Mr Yoon was a lawyer.

Since taking office, he has made repairing this fractured relationship a cornerstone of his foreign policy. With nuclear-armed North Korea becoming more dangerous, Seoul stands to benefit from sharing intelligence with Tokyo and having their militaries work together.

He also wants to please his ally, the US, which is desperately trying to draw its partners closer to combat the rise of China. President Joe Biden hailed Mr Yoon’s Japan deal as “a ground-breaking new chapter”. The next day he sent him an invitation to the White House for a prestigious state visit.

Survivors of Japanese forced labour demonstrate with opposition party members in front of the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, 07 March 2023.
Image caption, The compensation deal incensed survivors of Japanese forced labour and opposition party members in South Korea

This also signals a fresh chapter for South Korea’s place in the world. President Yoon wants to end what he sees as his country’s tunnel-vision over North Korea. Instead he is looking outwards, across the Indo-Pacific, at the bigger role South Korea can play. An invitation by the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to May’s G7 summit in Hiroshima would be a mission accomplished.

There are economic rewards to be reaped too. In 2019, when relations were particularly sour, Japan imposed export restrictions on the chemicals Seoul needs to build its semi-conductors. Getting these lifted was a top priority, briefed a senior government official ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

This summit offers a chance to repair years of broken trust. So far Seoul has conceded more than Tokyo. As one senior diplomat put it to me, South Korea has walked across the dancefloor, lights on, everyone watching, to ask its neighbour out. Japan has agreed to dance. But South Korea is expecting more.

A strategic win for Japan too

Shaimaa Khalil in Tokyo

South Korea’s leader is holding a number of high-level talks on his much-anticipated visit. But Yoon Suk Yeol will also have one of his favourite dishes – “omurice”, or fried rice topped with an omelette – according to local media.

Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper reported Fumio Kishida plans to take Mr Yoon to the famed restaurant Rengatei after their summit.

“Going the extra-mile” is how some media reports here described it – while others on social media called it “Omurice diplomacy”.

Foreign and defence ministry officials would also resume security talks, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.

The two nations will no doubt benefit from closer ties. But this is a strategic and diplomatic win for Japan. The world’s third-largest economy is preparing to host the G7 summit in May in Hiroshima.

Threats posed by North Korea and China will be among those at the top of the agenda. Closer security ties with South Korea will give Japan a much more solid standing as they address these threats and how to handle them.

This also sends an important message to the US. Tokyo wants to reassure Washington that it can still rely on it as a key ally and powerbroker in an increasingly unstable and volatile region.

Diplomatically this summit is significant. In 2019 relations between Tokyo and Seoul plummeted over the forced labour dispute during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

Leaders of the two nations met briefly at the G20 that year, but it was not as important because there were no bilateral talks.

US President Joe Biden (C) flanked by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (C/R) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C/L) sits with South Korea's President Yoon Suk-Yeol (L) and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (R) during a tri-lateral meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit at the Ifema congress centre in Madrid, on June 29, 2022.
Image caption, Mr Yoon and Mr Kishida (seated left and right of Joe Biden) have met at summits like the Nato Madrid talks last June

Tensions also escalated when Tokyo imposed export curbs on high-tech materials such as chemicals used to make smartphone displays, TV screens and semi-conductors.

When South Korea announced earlier this month a plan to resolve the long-standing dispute, there was a sense of excitement for a new beginning – among diplomats and politicians as least.

Mr Kishida hailed the move and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi welcomed the effort to “return ties to a healthy state” while both sides announced talks on rolling back trade curbs imposed almost four years ago.

This rapprochement could not come at a more crucial time. Not just for the two neighbours but their common strategic ally – the US.

Joe Biden said in a statement that this was “a ground-breaking new chapter of co-operation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies”.

“When fully realised, their steps will help us to uphold and advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.

But this will not be smooth sailing for either leader. There’s still a great deal of historical tension and mistrust among the hardline-politicians of both countries.

Right now, though, the neighbours face a common and ever growing threat. North Korea is developing stronger, more developed missiles – and there are worries that it will soon be testing nuclear weapons.

China is aggressively expanding in the region and its suspected military base project in the Solomon Islands (which Beijing denies) has worried Washington and its allies in the Asia-Pacific.

Last month, after the US shot down Chinese spy balloons, Japan’s government said it suspected that three unidentified flying objects spotted over the nation’s territory since 2019 had been Chinese spy balloons.

Japan’s Defence Ministry said it would review its rules over the use of force in relation to any future violations of the country’s airspace by a foreign balloon. Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada earlier hinted that the government would not rule out shooting down such foreign balloons.

Japan is also constantly worried any potential Chinese aggression towards Taiwan – which will inevitably pull it in. Those anxieties continue to deepen the more Beijing leans towards Moscow in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Japan and South Korea share a fraught history – but the two countries now face an increasingly tense present and an uncertain future when it comes to regional security.

Source: British Broadcasting Corporation