North Korea

Seoul, Tokyo reopen strategic diplomatic channels amid nuke threats


Thursday’s meeting extends collaboration beyond military and finance.

Seoul, Tokyo reopen strategic diplomatic channels amid nuke threats

A view of South Korean and Japanese national flags hoisted ahead of the arrival of South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife Kim Keon-hee, at Tokyo International Airport on March 16, 2023.

The foreign ministries of South Korea and Japan held their first “strategic dialogue” in nine years, and agreed to strengthen ties to deal with the common threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations, a development indicating that the bilateral collaboration is extending beyond the military, finance to diplomacy.

South Korea’s first vice minister for foreign affairs Chang Ho-jin and his Japanese counterpart Masataka Okano met in Seoul on Thursday, where the agenda centered around bilateral, regional and global issues, including the Indo-Pacific strategy and geopolitics of East Asia, according to the South’s foreign ministry statement.

The two also jointly condemned North Korea’s nuclear provocations during the talks, the statement added. They concurred that the United States, South Korea, and Japan must “collaborate to spearhead a resolute and unified international response,” vowing that the three nations will put efforts towards improving human rights in North Korea.

“The vice-ministerial strategic dialogue is a part of the close communication between ROK and Japan, and we expect it to further strengthen our cooperation on issues of common interest based on this communication,” said Lim Soo-suk, South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesperson in a regular briefing, referring to South Korea by its formal name.  

Seoul’s ties and communication with Tokyo were improving at both bilateral and multilateral levels, she added. 

The meeting between the two key U.S. allies took place for the first time since 2014, after the two leaders of the countries, Yoon Suk Yeol and Kishida Fumio agreed to mend ties during a summit in March.

The meeting was first held in 2005, with the aim of expanding  bilateral strategic cooperation to tackle regional challenges, but was suspended as relations between Seoul and Tokyo soured over disagreement surrounding Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

Most notable is the issue of compensating forced laborers and ‘comfort women,’ a Japanese euphemism for wartime sex slaves. As the dispute showed no signs of reaching a resolution, its implication has extended to other areas, affecting military and economic security.

The discord between Tokyo and Seoul ran against the interests of Washington to reunite allies in addressing challenges posed by China. South Korea’s conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office last year, made steps to reconcile the dispute, and had proposed measures to compensate the wartime victims using South Korean funds, despite the domestic backlash.

Expanding cooperation

Thursday’s meeting signals South Korea and Japan’s effort to expand their scope of cooperation – a move that could aid U.S. President Joe Biden’s Asia strategy to unite regional allies.

Initial indications of reconciliation have appeared in the military sector, with the navies of South Korea and Japan actively and openly participating in drills in waters that divide the Koreas and Japan.

The scope of cooperation then extended to the finance sector, with the two countries agreeing to revive their financial cooperation earlier this week, in the face of heightened geopolitical risks including those that could potentially stem from China’s unstable property market.  

During the U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral summit at Camp David in August, Yoon indicated that the cooperation is poised to expand its hi-tech industries. “In the fields of artificial intelligence, quantum, bio, next-generation information and communication, and space, ROK-US-Japan cooperation has great synergies,” Yoon said.

Kishida also echoed Yoon in the press conference: “In the area of economic security, there was consensus on promoting cooperation in key emerging technologies and cooperation related to strengthening supply chain resilience,” Kishida said, indicating that Tokyo’s cooperation with Seoul would create a foundation for continued and stable strengthening of trilateral cooperation.

The real game now is bringing specific measures into strengthening the cooperations, pointed out Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary for South Korea’s presidential office.

“The devil is in detail,” Cheon said. “It’s essential to identify specific methods to enhance collaboration. One approach could be establishing a committee dedicated to fostering direct cooperation.”

“The focus now should be on achieving tangible outcomes. Operating the current framework without producing meaningful results is futile,” he added.

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