Diplomatic thaw between Japan & South Korea


    In Context

    • Recently, the South Korean President Yoon visited Tokyo and met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, becoming the first South Korean president to visit Japan since 2011.

    History of conflict between Japan & South Korea 

    • About:
      • The two nations share a complicated history. 
      • They have fought on and off since at least the 7th Century, and Japan has repeatedly tried to invade the peninsula since then.
    • Colonization of peninsula:
      • In 1910, it annexed Korea, turning the territory into a colony.
      • By the late 1930s, Japan was starting to mobilise for war. It began to force people to work in the factories and mines, or enlist as soldiers.
      • “Comfort women”:
        • It also sent tens of thousands of women from across Asia – many of them Korean – into military brothels to service Japanese soldiers. The victims became known as “comfort women”.
    • End of Japanese rule:
      • Japan’s rule of Korea ended in 1945 when it was defeated in the war. 
      • But it took another 20 years before South Korean President Park Chung-hee agreed to normalise relations with the country in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and grants.
      • Tokyo argues that the 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and provided more than $800m in Japanese financial help, has settled the matter.
    • Demand of apology:
      • The issue reared its head again in 2018, when South Korea’s top court ordered a Japanese firm to compensate Koreans it used as forced labour.
        • However, it remains far from resolved.
      • South Korea has often complained that Japan has not offered a formal apology for its past deeds. 
      • It is also been argued that the present generation of Japan is not responsible for the deeds of their ancestors and therefore are nor responsible to owe an apology. 
        • This is a question of interpretation and can never be any finality and therefore must have a closure.
    • Current issues:
      • Mutual suspicion and acrimony have damaged bilateral ties over issues such as 
        • Wartime compensation by Japanese companies to Korean workers during the colonial period, 
        • Comfort women and 
        • Territorial issues centring on Takeshima island (Koreans call it Dokdo).

    Outcomes of the recent meet

    • Removal of export control:
      • Japan announced its intent to remove export controls it had imposed on South Korea in regard to three materials needed to produce semiconductors and displays since 2019. 
      • Seoul too dropped the dispute process as Yoon and Kishida reached common ground in Tokyo.
    • Security issues:
      • The security issues were also discussed. Kishida announced that the two countries would resume defence dialogue and strategic talks at the vice-ministerial level.
    • Civil society cooperation:
      • At another level, understanding was reached to promote relations across civil society. 
    • Challenges of North Korea & China:
      • The steady ratcheting up of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, including a long-range missile test the day the Yoon-Kishida summit was to take place, was discussed. 
      • Other issues such as concerns regarding China’s challenge to the existing rules-based regional order were also discussed.


    • Address of important issues:
      • During Yoon’s visit to Japan, the first of a South Korean President to Tokyo in 12 years, he addressed most of the issues. 
      • What was significant was that Yoon’s visit came just 10 days after the two leaders struck a deal to resolve a dispute over South Korea’s 2018 court ruling against Japanese companies’ use of forced Korean labour during World War II.
    • Future oriented relationship:
      • The significance of the ties can be measured in the way that it provides a diplomatic boost and political momentum to establish a “future-oriented” bilateral relationship. 
    • USA:
      • Since Japan and South Korea are allies of the US, such bonhomie between the two Asian allies could help the USA in executing his Indo-Pacific strategy.
        • The US has all along encouraged both allies to seek reconciliation and create political space for dialogue in its previous trilateral meetings 
      • The strained ties between the two Asian allies was a matter of worry for the USA as it was seeking to present a unified front against the rising power of China and threats from North Korea’s expanding missile and nuclear arsenal.
    • Economic opportunities:
      • The engagements can create an opportunity for increased cooperation on economic security, including coordinating supply chains and building resilience against Chinese economic coercion. 
      • Japan’s decision to lift export curbs will serve as a groundbreaking opportunity to normalise economic and trade relations between the two countries.

    Korea’s domestic Challenge

    • Yoon has also faced formidable domestic political headwinds. The opposition chastised Yoon for failing to obtain an apology from Japan. 
    • Nearly 60 per cent of South Koreans were not happy with Yoon’s handling of the forced labour issue with Japan. 

    Way ahead

    • Yoon’s initiative was seen as a diplomatic thaw in the long frosty ties between Japan and South Korea and as a contributing factor to the future of Japan-US-South Korea trilateral dialogue framework.
    • There is no language Japan can use to express remorse for its past deeds which will satisfy the Koreans. Unless there is some understanding reached between the two sides, such historical issues would keep on resurfacing in Japan-Korea relations.


    Daily Mains Question


    [Q] Mutual suspicion and historical actions have damaged bilateral ties between Japan & South Korea. Analyse. How do the issues between two Asian nations affect the Indo-Pacific strategy?