North Korea

Yoon, Kishida aim for better ties; island issues may constrain


Ongoing territorial disputes could hamper full security cooperation, says an expert.

Yoon, Kishida aim for better ties; island issues may constrain

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shakes hands with South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol as they attend the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) Leaders event at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S. November 16, 2023.

South Korea and Japan are set to improve their once-strained relations across sectors including security and technology – a development aligning with the U.S. President Joe Biden’s strategy to maintain Washington’s influence in Asia, amidst ongoing security challenges in Europe and the Middle East.

However, ongoing territorial disputes between the two nations may limit the scope of their bilateral security cooperation, an expert noted. 

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met in San Francisco Thursday, and vowed for further enhancement of the bilateral relations. The latest meeting marked Yoon and Kishida’s seventh summit this year.

“The reinstatement of the Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue last month marks the complete restoration of all intergovernmental agreements reached during my visit to Japan in March. All arrangements are now fully operational,” Yoon told Kishida.

“The close cooperation between Japan and Korea in relation to the evacuation of their nationals from Israel is very reassuring,” Kishida told Yoon, referring to the incidents where both countries allowed their citizens to use each other’s military cargo planes for evacuation from Israel after an attack by Hamas.

The cooperation signaled a positive shift in the previously tense relationship between the neighboring states.

“The two leaders agreed to cooperate more closely on global challenges,” South Korea’s Presidential Office said in a statement Friday, adding that the two will work closely on issues such as North Korea and Ukraine.

Yoon and Kishida proposed collaboration in a wide range of areas, including advanced science and technology, at a trilateral level including the U.S., the statement added.

The relationship between the two countries had deteriorated over historical disputes in recent years. The main points of contention were Japan’s practices during its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula, particularly the forced recruitment of women into wartime brothels for the Japanese military and the use of forced labor.

The tense relations were further exacerbated by their close ties to domestic politics, a sensitive and challenging area to navigate. The prolonged strain adversely affected Washington’s strategy in Asia, as it hindered the establishment of open bilateral security relations between these two key U.S. allies.

The lack of cooperation between the two American allies in Asia has hindered Washington’s  efforts to strengthen its presence in the region, particularly in the face of expansionist moves from China and Russia.

But the South Korea-Japan relations showed signs of improvement following an initiative by South Korea’s President Yoon earlier this year. He proposed the creation of a public foundation aimed at compensating victims of wartime forced labor by Japan, a move intended to ease the strained ties.

The enhanced relations and consequent security cooperation could facilitate the containment of potential expansionist moves of non-democratic states in the region. With South Korea and Japan demonstrating their military capabilities, the U.S. could benefit from a more cost-effective approach to containing these authoritarian regimes.

It could also sustain Washington’s presence in the Asian region as it aims to resolve security crises in Ukraine and Israel.

Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary for South Korea’s presidential office, said the enhanced cooperation would no doubt benefit the Asia strategy of the U.S., although it has its limits.

“Cooperation between South Korea and Japan is beneficial for maintaining security order in the region. However, South Korea-Japan security cooperation inevitably has its limits, mainly because Japan raises territorial issues with South Korea,” Cheon said. “These countries are officially embroiled in a territorial dispute, and under such circumstances, full security cooperation is not possible.”

South Korea and Japan are currently disputing over the contested South Korea-controlled island called  Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, in the Sea of Japan, also known as East Sea.

“It’s like asking if there can be proper security cooperation if Canada claimed New Hampshire as its own. For fundamental security cooperation to be possible, territorial issues must be resolved,” Cheon added, issuing a warning against being overly optimistic about the bilateral security cooperation to a full extent.

Edited by Taejun Kang and Elaine Chan. 

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