After South Korea’s Icebreaker, Its President Is Welcomed to Tokyo
When South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, touches down in Japan on Thursday, it will be the first time in a dozen years that a leader from Seoul has made the short flight for a one-on-one visit with the Japanese prime minister.
It is a sign that the long-fraught relationship between the two Asian neighbors is thawing, a quick follow-up to last week’s ice-breaking announcement that South Korea would drop its demand that Japanese companies compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II.
Officials have indicated that Mr. Yoon’s meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is unlikely to produce significant new pronouncements on possible next steps in the rapprochement, like a lifting of Japanese restrictions on technology exports to South Korea. But the visit is a strong indication that the two countries, which have been at odds over history and territory for years, are now willing to cooperate to face rising threats from North Korea’s advancing nuclear program and China’s growing military ambitions in the region.
The steps toward conciliation are significant not only to Japan and South Korea but also to their alliance with the United States. The Americans need their two strongest allies in the region to get along so they can focus on creating a bulwark against China, which is upending geopolitical calculations not only in Asia but across the globe.
Yet Mr. Yoon’s visit, which is expected to include a dinner on Thursday at the prime minister’s residence and meetings between business leaders on Friday, will also be a test of how well the two leaders can assuage domestic public opinion about issues that have long aroused heated passions in both countries.
“Ninety percent of Japan-South Korea relations are domestic politics,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who is now a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. “Therefore, nobody knows what’s going to happen.” Mr. Miyake said that he was “still cautiously optimistic, but more optimistic than cautious.”
For the moment, the political risk is higher for Mr. Yoon. When he announced last week that South Korea would create a government-run fund to pay wartime forced laborers as a workaround for a Korean court order requiring compensation from Japanese companies, victims and activists denounced the agreement.
Opposition lawmakers described it as “one of the worst diplomatic disasters in the history of South Korea-Japan relations.” Public opinion polls released in Seoul this week showed that close to 56 percent of the public regarded Mr. Yoon’s solution to the forced labor dispute as “humiliating diplomacy.”
In Japan, which appeared to give little last week, the response was more favorable — a Kyodo News poll on Monday showed more than 57 percent of the public supporting the South Korean solution.
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There is still risk for Mr. Kishida from the right flank of his Liberal Democratic Party and other conservative critics. An editorial in the Sankei Shimbun, a right-leaning newspaper in Tokyo, castigated Japan’s welcoming response to Mr. Yoon’s plan last week as “extremely regrettable” and “pandering” to South Korea for “distorting and denouncing historical facts.”
The newspaper said that by not openly objecting to the agreement, Mr. Kishida had tacitly accepted the South Korean court’s argument: that Japanese companies owed the Korean laborers reparations despite a 1965 agreement through which Japan had already made payments.
Despite such criticism, analysts expect that Japan will eventually offer something in return, beyond welcoming Mr. Yoon to Tokyo. Japanese officials indicated last week that the trade ministry would begin talks about lifting export controls it imposed in 2019 that limited South Korea’s access to chemicals essential for making semiconductors. Keita Kawamori, a ministry spokesman, said “there is a lot of discussion happening under the surface” about the possibility of rescinding the controls, which were imposed as relations were ebbing.
South Korea has also suggested that it would like Japanese companies to make voluntary contributions to the forced-labor fund. So far, the Japanese business community has not said much, but analysts said it was probably mulling some kind of conciliatory gesture. South Korean officials said that the business communities of both nations were discussing creating a new fund to offer scholarships and finance student exchange programs.
“If the South Korean side goes first and doesn’t ask too much of the Japan side, then the Japanese side will try to make an advance,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo.
The last time a South Korean president came to Japan for an official bilateral visit, in 2011, Lee Myung-bak pressed his hosts to compensate Korean women who were forced to work as sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II.
When Japan did not reciprocate, the South Korean public turned against Mr. Lee, who went on to antagonize Tokyo by visiting a disputed set of islets in the sea between South Korea and Japan in 2012. Relations between the two countries deteriorated from there.
This time around, both sides may have strong reasons to keep the reconciliation on track, as Russia’s war in Ukraine causes energy shortages and supply chain problems, and China’s rising ambitions threaten to alter the balance of power in Asia.
“There are extraneous events that force collaboration and cooperation,” said Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Even as relations between Japan and South Korea remained frosty in recent years, trilateral meetings between the Americans, the South Koreans and the Japanese continued.
Last year, Mr. Emanuel said, officials from the three countries met more than 40 times. “That normalizes friendships, relationships and trust that didn’t exist before,” he said, helping to support efforts by Seoul and Tokyo to calm the waters between them.
On the South Korean side, Mr. Yoon was unlikely to have been surprised by the public reaction to his olive branch to Tokyo and would not easily be steered off course by criticism, analysts said.
South Korean politics is so polarized that “turning anti-Japanese won’t get him new credit from voters,” said Bong Youngshik, an expert on South Korea-Japan relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.
The loudest criticism in South Korea comes from activists who have long argued that Japan has not done enough to atone for its atrocities during the 35 years it occupied the Korean Peninsula.
But with the urgency for South Korea and Japan to cooperate in combating geopolitical threats, “South Koreans need to let their government get on with the business of governance,” said Katharine H.S. Moon, professor emerita of political science at Wellesley College.
During Mr. Yoon’s visit, Tokyo will lend a hand to the conciliatory message by staging the kind of hospitable and convivial show that Japan specializes in for official diplomatic meetings. Local media has reported that in addition to hosting a formal working dinner at his residence, Mr. Kishida will take Mr. Yoon for a casual post-dinner drink and a snack of “omu rice,” a popular Japanese version of an omelet on fried rice that Mr. Yoon has said he enjoys.
If the visit does mark more than a momentary reprieve in tensions, it will most likely cause concerns in China, said Victor Cha, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“China counts on Japan and Korea hating each other,” Mr. Cha said. “That’s part of their strategy to divide and weaken the U.S. position in Asia.”
Hikari Hida contributed reporting from Tokyo.