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Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s Visit to South Korea: 3 Points to Watch

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Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s Visit to South Korea: 3 Points to Watch

From a potential Kishida apology to the limits of security cooperation, three important questions will define the future trajectory of the Japan-South Korea thaw.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida’s Visit to South Korea: 3 Points to Watch

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio attend a joint press conference after their summit in Tokyo, Japan, Mar. 16, 2023.

Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Japan and South Korea are finally emerging from their long diplomatic stalemate. In a surprise move, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio will make a two-day visit to Seoul starting on May 7 to meet with President Yoon Suk-yeol.

This is a reciprocal trip, coming less than two months after Yoon’s trip to Tokyo in mid-March. It marks the first time an incumbent Japanese prime minister has been to the neighboring country since February 2018 when the late Abe Shinzo attended the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics.

The visit will also mark the full-scale resumption of so-called shuttle diplomacy between the leaders of Japan and South Korea. Shuttle diplomacy had completely ceased for more than a decade after then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak landed on the disputed remote islets, called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean, in August 2012.

On May 4, South Korea’s presidential spokesperson said that the two leaders will discuss cooperation in areas such as security, advanced industries, science and technology, and youth and cultural exchanges. Major agenda items are expected to include ways to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and the trilateral security cooperation with the United States.

Here are three points we should watch out for at the Kishida-Yoon summit.

Will Kishida offer words of “reflection and apology” for past wrongs?

The previous summit in March caused negative reactions in South Korea. This is mainly because Kishida did not directly express any remorse or offer an official apology for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. Kishida appeared to have given political considerations to Japanese conservatives, who feel that Tokyo has already repeatedly apologized and expressed regret toward Seoul.

Instead, Kishida expressed his intention to inherit the historic Partnership Declaration signed in 1998 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. The declaration pledged future cooperation between the two nations, while Obuchi himself expressed deep remorse and heartfelt apology for Japan’s colonial rule.

Kishida’s indirect approach prompted South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party (DP) to criticize Yoon’s visit as being “empty-handed.” The DP and civic groups have taken part in massive rallies in Seoul protesting the summit as “shameful diplomacy.”

Nevertheless, Yoon’s conviction to improve the bilateral relationship has not wavered. In a cabinet meeting on March 21, Yoon said that Tokyo has already expressed apologies and remorse dozens of times over historical issues with Seoul, and attacked the opposition’s use of anti-Japanese sentiment for political gain.

In addition, Yoon said in an interview with The Washington Post in April that he cannot accept the notion that Japan “must kneel [for forgiveness] because of our history 100 years ago.”

This was a big surprise to many Japanese, as Seoul has often requested that Tokyo squarely face its past wrongs.

However, despite Yoon’s personal views, South Koreans still appear to be paying close attention to whether Kishida will express “deep remorse and a heartfelt apology” at the summit or their joint press conference.

South Korean media, especially liberal outlets like Hankyoreh newspaper, are pressuring Tokyo to take a positive action, saying, “Now it’s Prime Minister Kishida’s turn to make concessions.”

In order to reward Yoon for taking a holistic, positive approach toward Japan, will Kishida offer a clear apology to Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor?

Just like Yoon, Kishida needs to directly convey to the South Korean public that he is really serious about improving relations between Japan and South Korea from the bottom of his heart.

How far will Japan-South Korea security cooperation progress?

The importance of uniting liberal democracies is significantly increasing in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s increasingly assertive behavior (especially in the maritime domain), and North Korea’s unstoppable nuclear and missile development – all of which are threatening regional peace and stability.

Kishida has previously said that “we should not let authoritarian countries lead the international order.” On the other hand, Yoon also emphasizes the need to strengthen solidarity with countries that share universal values, including Japan, for freedom, peace, and prosperity. Yoon sees Japan as a partner in defending freedom.

While their ideology and the direction of the national strategy match, how far will security cooperation between Japan and South Korea go?

South Korea’s previous administrations have been cautious about security cooperation with Japan in consideration of anti-Japanese public opinion in the country. In 2011, during the Lee Myung-bak administration, the two nations agreed to start negotiations on the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), but negotiations on the ACSA stalled.

Although the GSOMIA was successfully concluded in 2016 under the Park Geun-hye administration, the Moon Jae-in administration announced its annulment in 2019. Seoul later revoked that notification, after pressure from the United States, but the episode highlighted the difficulty of security cooperation between Japan and South Korea.

However, with North Korea continuing to launch a wide variety of new missiles one after another on various platforms such as submersibles and railroads, South Korean calculus may change. Trilateral joint military exercises among Japan, South Korea, and the United States have already come into full swing since August.

Moving forward, Japan and South Korea need to fully restore the GSOMIA so the two can quickly share military information when North Korea launches missiles. Undersea missile launches from the Sea of Japan, known as the East Sea in South Korea, are said to be difficult to detect using South Korea’s radar systems, so information obtained by Japan’s Aegis ships is important.

Meanwhile, South Korea has installed radar networks near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) to constantly monitor North Korea’s movements. Pyongyang is about 150 kilometers from the MDL. Unlike Japanese radars, for Seoul there are few blind spots there and it is easy to see low-altitude movements. The two countries can make up for their weaknesses by cooperating more with each other.

Supported by the United States, the two nations should hold their 2+2 foreign and defense ministerial meeting in the near future. The two nations can also share information on cyberattacks by North Korea.

After all, the two East Asian nations are in the same boat amid a worsening security environment. For example, Tokyo allows the United Nations Forces to use seven U.S. bases in Japan to support South Korea in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula.

What will happen to public opinion in Japan and South Korea?

Public opinion in both countries is a big factor in improving relations. Especially in South Korea, the approval rating of the Yoon administration could remain sluggish if the president is viewed as repeatedly making concessions in diplomacy with Japan. Negative opinion toward the Yoon administration’s resolution of the issue of former forced laborers is already deeply rooted.

There is still a sense of distrust on the Japanese side as well. Many Japanese fear that the South Korean government will once again take a hardline stance under the pressure of public opinion, especially after Yoon’s term ends. Memories of the collapse of the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, which was supposed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue, are still fresh.

South Korea will have general elections in April 2024, which will carry great significance as they constitute a mid-term evaluation of the conservative Yoon administration. Depending on the results, Yoon may be forced to re-evaluate his approach to ties with Japan.

While Kishida’s visit to South Korea is important, it will not be the last chance to address these issues. Kishida has invited Yoon to the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima starting on May 19, which is likely to give a boost to improving bilateral ties.