South Korean leader Yoon Suk-yeol and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in a split image photo. Image: Twitter

SEOUL – Could Washington’s long-held dream of a US-led Northeast Asian alliance finally become reality?

That might be a stretch, given the long, contentious history of emotive squabbling between Seoul and Tokyo. Yet on Wednesday (June 29), Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol sat down under the gaze of US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the ongoing NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain.

The importance of the meeting to Biden may be gauged by the fact that it was put on his Madrid agenda despite the pressing importance of the issue dominating the summit – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In what may have been music to the US president’s ears, Yoon said, “I hope that our meeting today will position the [South Korean]-US-Japan partnership as yet another central pillar for global peace and stability.” 

Kishida was less inclusive, referring to the two separate US alliances and to a more specific geography. But he did say, “Through this meeting, I hope that trilateral cooperation regarding our response to North Korea will be solidified.”

Yoon, who took office in May, has zero diplomatic experience but was firing on all cylinders in Madrid.

Brushing aside a faux pas from the US president – film showed a wobbly-looking Biden apparently not recognizing Yoon, greeting him with just a perfunctory handshake – Yoon praised Kishida, saying, “I came away confident that Prime Minister Kishida will become a partner in resolving issues between South Korea and Japan.”

The presence of the two Asia leaders exemplifies the latest effort by Washington to ring its Chinese and Russian competitors with a network of alliances that criss-cross the globe.

For the first time, the NATO Summit was joined by US treaty partners from the Indo-Pacific: The leaders of the democratic nations of Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

But in a sign of the complexities and divergent interests at play in current geopolitics, the world’s largest democracy was not in the room. New Delhi is aligned against Beijing as a member of the Quad security dialog but has declined to condemn Moscow’s assault upon Ukraine and continues to acquire Russian arms and purchase Russian fuel.

Still, dragging the Japanese and Korean leaders to the same table at a security forum – albeit one thousands of miles from their respective capitals – is a step forward for US security ambitions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left), US President Joe Biden (center) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right).

The two nations lie off China’s strategic northeastern flank, are adjacent to the Russian Far East and lie in range of North Korea’s expanding missile arsenal. 

Both have separate security alliances with the US – alliances complicated by their respective relationships with their leading trade partner, China.

Both wield powerful militaries, using NATO-standard equipment, with roughly complementary strengths. Continental Korea fields a huge, conscript-manned ground army. Ex-continental Japan is further developing its already powerful blue-water navy.

Both militaries face domestic constraints, however. Since its bloody intervention in the Vietnam War, South Korea’s forces have remained heavily deployed against nearby North Korea. Japan is prevented from kinetic expeditions by its pacifist constitution.

And both operate high-tech research and manufacturing sectors that produce strategic products, with interlinked supply changes.

However, while trilateral military cooperation may make logical sense, US officials have for decades been tearing their hair out over the emotive issues that keep Seoul and Tokyo at daggers drawn.

Historical animosities relating to Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula have been an endless source of diplomatic-political tensions.

Those animosities surged over their customary firewalls into the legal, economic and military spheres during the terms of former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe (who held office, for his second term, from 2012-2020) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (in office from 2017-2022).

With Abe and Moon now both out of office, the chances for a reset look good.  

Though Kishida has been largely non-committal, Yoon made clear – in a highly unusual stance for a South Korean politician – during the presidential election campaign that he strongly favored strengthening bilateral ties.

Asia Times understands that a 2018 South Korean legal decision related to colonial-era forced labor is viewed by Japan as the key stumbling block to better relations.

Yoon not only has the apparent political desire to remove the roadblock, he also has related professional expertise. Having been a state prosecutor prior to becoming president, he is fully familiar with Seoul’s murky political-judicial interface.

Change agent? South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Photo: AFP

What they talked about

While the NATO summit focused heavily on Russia, and to a lesser extent China, the public comments the three leaders made on Wednesday before reporters all related to North Korea.

Unlike Moon, Yoon does not prioritize engaging North Korea, putting him on the same page as Biden and Kishida.

“I very much welcome the prompt response by the Japan-US. and US-[South Korea] alliances against ballistic missiles launched by North Korea,” Kishida said. “And the agreement reached at the recent trilateral ministerial meeting between defense ministers to conduct trilateral missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercises is welcomed,” Kishida said.

The last remark refers to exercises off Hawaii, scheduled for August, between the three navies. He added that if, as expected, North Korea conducts another nuclear test, “I hope that response can be taken at the trilateral level, including joint exercises. 

Even prior to the Madrid meeting, steps had been taken by the Yoon administration to upgrade relations – albeit in a gradualist manner.

Both countries’ foreign ministers have called for an upgrade in the GSOMIA, or General Security of Military Information Agreement, a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact. The deal was signed in 2016, but in 2019, Seoul threatened to nullify it.

That did not happen due to a US intervention but the comments of the two ministers suggest there is room for improvement in its implementation.

There is a pending need for optimal interaction. North Korea is currently on a missile testing spree and is widely expected to test a new nuclear device in the near future.

Against this backdrop, and as noted by Kishida, the drills off Hawaii in August aim at improving missile detection and tracking capabilities.

There is a pressing need for improved relations between the Japanese and Korean navies, in particular

In 2018, Seoul ordered a Japanese vessel invited to a Korean naval review to strike its ensign: The design recalls Imperial Japanese symbology. The Japanese ship declined and departed in a cloud of indignation.

More seriously, in the same year, a Korean destroyer on the high seas locked its target radar onto a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft – then declined to respond to urgent Japanese radio queries on the matter.

The Korean side insisted that the Japanese plane was buzzing the ship at unsafe distances.

Fumio Kishida is more cautious than his Korean counterpart on the issue of upgrading bilateral relations. Photo: AFP / Du Xiaoyi

Business, travel, return to life

Wednesday’s Madrid meeting was not the only sign of a possible spring coming to a wintry relationship. The bilateral freeze was not just a result of politics, but also Covid-19. With the pandemic evaporating, new activity is gathering pace.

The first meetings of business leaders of the two countries in three years will take place in Seoul next Monday, it has been announced.

The Korea-Japan Business Council, attended by the key corporate lobby groups of the respective nations, the Federation of Korean Industries and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), will be held for the first time since 2019.

Some 20 executives, including the heads of the two organizations, will join the event.

Meanwhile, commercial flights between Seoul and Tokyo, which were on a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, have resumed this week.  Four airlines – All Nippon Airways, Asiana, Japan Airlines and Korean Air – started round trips through the route between Seoul’s Gimpo Airport and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

However, these are baby steps: Only eight flights a week will connect the two giant capitals, which have a combined total of 24 million residents.

Still, the pandemic is arguably a lower bilateral barrier than the other issues that divide them. Differing perceptions of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula, and its post-1945 apologies and compensations, deeply divide the two countries.

Looking forward or backward?

The two sides’ positions can – very broadly – be summarized as follows.

South Korea’s stance is that Japan has neither appropriately apologized nor adequately compensated the victims of its 1910-1945 colonial rule. Moreover, its political and educational sectors refuse to take responsibility for past crimes and a reactionary clique continues to hold influence over Japan’s polity.

Japan’s position is that it has repeatedly apologized and compensated but has been rejected again and again and thus accuses Seoul of bad faith. Moreover, Korean activists exaggerate or even in some cases invent historical details and actively humiliate Japan on the issue in the global community.

South Korean protesters tear up a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Under the new president, scenes like this could become less common. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Matters came to a head in 2017, when the Moon government unilaterally abrogated a bilaterally agreed 2015 apology-compensation deal for surviving “comfort women.” Then, in 2018, Korean courts seized Japanese companies’ assets to compensate colonial-era forced laborers.

While angered by the former, Tokyo was infuriated by the latter on the grounds that it overturned a long-standing 1965 deal that enabled the opening of diplomatic ties. Under that, Tokyo had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in soft loans and grants – including compensation for forced laborers.

In 1965, the Seoul government of the day – under an authoritarian president who had been a Japanese collaborator during the colonial years – deployed the Japanese monies for economic development rather than victims’ compensation.

In response to the 2018 action, Tokyo removed Korea from its most-favored trading nation list and emplaced export controls on key chemicals used by Korea’s flagship chip and display industries. Korea retaliated, removing Japan from its trade white list.

However, opacity descended in the wake of these decisions.

Tokyo’s shipments of chemicals – while delayed – continued. South Korea’s chip production was not impacted, and indeed, semiconductor shipments soared during the “stay-at-home, play-at-home” era that marked much of the Covid pandemic.

And the seized Japanese assets have not, despite the passage of four years, yet been liquidated by the courts. Japan has warned of massive retaliation if that process proceeds.

Writing in April, before Korea’s May election, Japan’s liberal Asahi newspaper editorialized “Irreparable confrontation would result if the cash-out were to become a reality. South Korea’s judiciary authorities are evidently taking an unusually long time in putting the step into practice because they know the gravity of its consequences.”

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