South Korean leader lands in Japan for first visit in 12 years amid China, North Korea concerns
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrived in Japan Thursday for a fence-mending summit, the first such visit in 12 years as the two neighbors seek to confront growing threats from North Korea to rising concerns about China.
Those shared security challenges were highlighted just hours before the trip when North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile into the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula – the fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than one year.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemned the latest launch, calling it a “reckless act” that “threatens the peace and security of our country, the region, and the international community.”
The summit between Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is a crucial step to mend frayed ties after decades of disputes and mistrust between two crucial US allies in Asia.
Yoon’s office has hailed it “an important milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.
The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of acrimony, dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.
The two normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes have continued to fester, in particular over colonial Japan’s use of forced labor and so-called “comfort women” sex slaves.
In recent years the often fraught relations have undermined efforts by the United States to present a united front against North Korea – and the growing assertiveness of Beijing.
Now, the region’s two most important allies for the US appear ready to turn a new page in bilateral ties, driven by their deepening security concerns about Pyongyang’s ever more frequent missile tests and China’s increasingly aggressive military posturing.
Before departing for Tokyo, Yoon told international media on Wednesday “there is an increasing need for Korea and Japan to cooperate in this time of a polycrisis,” citing escalating North Korean nuclear and missile threats and the disruption of global supply chains.
“We cannot afford to waste time while leaving strained Korea-Japan relations unattended,” Yoon said.
The thaw in relations comes after South Korea took a major step toward resolving a long-running dispute that plunged ties to their lowest point in decades.
Last week, South Korea announced it would compensate victims of forced labor under Japan’s occupation from 1910 to 1945 through a public foundation funded by private Korean companies – instead of asking Japanese firms to contribute to the reparations.
The move was welcomed by Japan and hailed by US President Joe Biden as “a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies.”
The deal broke a deadlock reached in 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate 100 million Korean won ($77,000) to each of the 15 plaintiffs who sued them over forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule.
Only three of the 15 victims that participated in the lawsuit are alive today, all in their nineties.
Japan did not agree with the South Korean court’s 2018 decision, and no compensation had been paid by Tokyo.
That led to rising tensions between the two sides, with Japan restricting exports of materials used in memory chips, and South Korea scrapping its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo during the presidency of Moon Jae-in, the predecessor to Yoon.
But the Yoon administration has been striving to improve relations between Seoul and Tokyo, especially as the two US allies face an increasingly volatile security situation with North Korean missile tests that threaten both South Korea and Japan, and tensions across the Taiwan Strait – an area that both Tokyo and Seoul say is vital to their respective security.
Following the compensation announcement, Kishida told reporters that Japan “appreciates” South Korea’s solution to the wartime labor row, adding he is taking Yoon’s visit as a chance to “bolster bilateral relations.”
Even before the pivotal move to settle the historical dispute, Seoul and Tokyo have signaled their willingness to put the past behind them and foster closer relations.
On March 1, in a speech commemorating the 104th anniversary of South Korea’s protest movement against Japan’s colonial occupation, Yoon said Japan had “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner” that “shares the same universal values.”
Since taking office, the two leaders have embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activities toward mending bilateral ties – and deepening their joint cooperation with Washington.
In September, Yoon and Kishida held the first summit between the two countries since 2019 in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where they agreed to improve relations.
In November, the two leaders met Biden in Cambodia at a regional summit, where they “commended the unprecedented level of trilateral coordination” and “resolved to forge still-closer trilateral links, in the security realm and beyond.”
In a notable move, the three leaders also affirmed their stance on Taiwan, and emphasized “the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community.”
Closer alignment among the US, Japan and South Korea on the issue of Taiwan is likely to upset Beijing, which views the self-ruling democracy as its own territory despite having never governed it.
China is also concerned about the involvement of South Korea in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – better known as “the Quad” – an informal security dialogue among the US, Japan, Australia and India. Beijing views the grouping as part of Washington’s attempt to encircle the country with strategic and military allies.
Last week, a senior South Korean official said Seoul plans to “proactively accelerate” its participation in the Quad working group.
“Although we have not yet joined the Quad, the Yoon Suk Yeol government has been emphasizing its importance in terms of its Indo-Pacific strategy,” the official told reporters during a visit to Washington, D.C., Yonhap reported.