TOKYO – South Korean and Japanese leaders will meet in Tokyo this week, hoping to resume regular visits after a gap of over a decade and overcome resentments that date back more than 100 years. The two major Asian economies and United States allies face increasing need to cooperate on challenges posed by China and North Korea, but previous rounds of diplomacy have foundered on unresolved issues from Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
Seoul has offered Tokyo concessions on South Korean court orders for compensation over wartime forced labor, but it remains to be seen whether the South Korean public will accept reconciliation.
The AP explains what's kept the two neighbors apart, what they're expected to talk about, and why it matters for the region.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
Japan effectively colonized the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, in a regime that imposed Japanese names and language on Koreans and conscripted many into forced labor or forced prostitution in military brothels before and during World War II. Japan gave $800 million to South Korea’s military-backed government under a 1965 accord to normalize relations, which were mainly used on economic development projects driven by major South Korean companies. A semi-government fund set up by Tokyo offered compensation to former “comfort women” when the government apologized in 1995, but many South Koreans believe that the Japanese government must take more direct responsibility for the occupation.
The two sides also have a longstanding territorial dispute over a group of islands controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan.
Seoul and Tokyo have attempted to establish better ties before. In 2004, leaders began regular visits, but these ended in 2012 after then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islands. Tensions escalated over the past 10 years as conservative Japanese governments moved to rearm the country while stepping up attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities, and in 2018 South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate forced labor victims. In 2019, Japan, in apparent retaliation, placed export controls against South Korea on chemicals used to make semiconductors and displays used in smartphones and other high-tech devices.
WHAT'S EXPECTED AT THE SUMMIT?
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are to hold a summit and have dinner together during Yoon’s March 16-17 visit. Though leaders have met in multilateral settings, including on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in New York in September, this is the first formal bilateral summit since a meeting in Seoul in 2015.
Kishida is expected to reaffirm Japan’s past expressions of remorse over its wartime actions.
Both sides have signaled hopes that this summit will lead to a resumption of regular bilateral visits, although Kishida hasn't yet announced plans for a visit to South Korea. Tokyo is also considering an invitation to Yoon to return to Japan as an observer at the Group of Seven summit Kishida will host in Hiroshima in May.
Yoon will be accompanied by high-profile business leaders who are expected to meet their Japanese counterparts. Masakazu Tokura, chair of the Japan Business Federation, said the two sides are considering establishing a separate, private fund to promote bilateral economy, culture and other key areas of cooperation.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR THE REGION?
Improved ties between South Korea and Japan could pave the way for the two U.S. allies to cooperate more closely on shared concerns related to China and North Korea.
Washington is eager to get its allies on the same page, and appears to have worked intensively to bring about the summit. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said his country and its two allies had about 40 trilateral meetings and he thinks cooperation in the process helped to build up trust. While Japan increasingly bolstered defense ties with the U.K., Australia, India and the Philippines, challenges in Japan-South Korea relations were obvious and their closer relationship “in the larger context of our strategic alignment … is a very big deal.”
South Korean officials have denied direct pressure from the Biden administration to resolve the historical discord with Tokyo, but the plan is apparently part of South Korean efforts to strengthen security partnerships to counter North Korea, which has been expanding nuclear-capable missiles and issuing threats of preemptive nuclear strikes.
While pushing to expand U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, the Yoon government has sought Washington’s stronger reassurances to swiftly and decisively use its nuclear weapons to protect its ally from North Korea.
Seoul and Tokyo last week also announced plans for talks to restore the country’s trade relations, which could relieve pressure from global high-tech supply chains. South Korean officials say stronger economic cooperation with Tokyo has become more crucial in the face of industrial supply chain disruptions and other global challenges.
“The need to strengthen South Korea-Japan cooperation has never been greater in the era of complex crises, brought by uncertainties in global geopolitics, North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile testing activity and the disruption in industrial supply chains,” South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyundong said last week.
HOW ARE JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA ADDRESSING HISTORY?
Experts say that the two countries will have to find an accommodation on history if this round of diplomacy is to achieve lasting results.
Choi Eun-mi, an analyst at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the summit wouldn’t change South Korean public opinion if it’s all about security and economic matters. “There must be some sort of expression of apologies and self-reflection by Japan, in particular by the Japanese government and the defendant companies,” she said.
Seoul made a significant concession prior to the summit, announcing plans to use local funds to pay out compensation from the 2018 court order. South Korea will offer reparations to the plaintiffs through an existing state-run foundation that will raise the money from South Korean companies that benefited from the 1965 accord. It's a major relief for Tokyo, which fears that further South Korean court orders could impose massive compensation demands on hundreds of other Japanese companies that used wartime forced labor.
The plan has met fierce opposition from surviving forced labor victims, their supporters, and opposition politicians, who have demanded compensation directly from Japanese companies and a fresh apology from Tokyo. Only three of 15 forced labor victims who won damages in 2018 are still alive, and all three refused to accept South Korean payments in written notes submitted to the foundation, said their lawyer, Lim Jae-sung.
South Korean officials say the country's law allows for third-party reimbursements, and that they will do their best to persuade the victims to accept the payments.
South Korean officials say they do not expect Nippon Steel or Mitsubishi to immediately contribute to funds for the forced labor victims, and Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said it’s up to Japanese companies to decide whether to contribute to the funds voluntarily.
The future of the deal may also rest on whether Kishida’s government can win over South Korean public opinion. South Korean officials express hope that Yoon brings back a “sincere response” from Tokyo as bilateral relations improve.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.
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