HomeAsiaJapan and South Korea get along, but can it last?

Japan and South Korea get along, but can it last?

To underline the festive atmosphere that surrounds the long-awaited visit by the president of South Korea this week, the prime minister of Japan hosted not just one, but two dinners on Thursday night in Tokyo.

Shortly after South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol told reporters that “frozen ties should be thawed” and Japan’s Fumio Kishida celebrated “a new chapter” in their strained relationship, they went with their wives to a restaurant. traditional in the upmarket Ginza district in Tokyo. The two leaders then split up for a more informal meal of “omurice,” a popular dish of an omelet over fried rice. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, noted that Mr. Kishida and Mr. Yoon were so relaxed that they “reportedly took off their jacket and tie” while eating and drinking.

Behind the cordiality of the first bilateral summit to be held in Japan in a dozen years was the question of how long the fragile truce between the two countries will last.

Both sides have made goodwill gestures. Seoul has dropped its demand that Japanese companies compensate Korean victims forced to work during World War II, a contentious issue for years. Tokyo plans to end its 2019 restrictions on technology exports to South Korea.

But the relationship is still a work in progress. Both leaders will face potential domestic political snags, as well as a delicate balancing act in a region where two superpowers, the United States and China, are vying for influence.

“The real issue is how much robustness” there is in the heating loops, he said. Shihoko Goto, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. “And how long does this really have legs?”

So far, Yoon has taken a bolder step by offering an alternative to a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court decision that ordered Japanese companies that relied on Korean forced labor during World War II to directly compensate survivors and your families. According to Mr. Yoon’s solution, the South Korean government will create a fund to pay the victims. President Biden called the ad “innovative.”

When the agreement was announced earlier this month, Japan did little more than refer to a previous government apology for “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea” during the Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.

Mr. Yoon has expressed hope that Japanese companies will make voluntary contributions to the South Korean fund, but Japan’s top business federation has so far only said it will set up a scholarship fund for exchange students. South Korea’s main business group will reciprocate.

The Japanese government has been cautious, analysts say, because it fears that any new deal could fall apart, just like a agreement 2015 in which Japan apologized and promised a payment of $8.3 million to provide care for Korean women who had been forced to serve as sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army.

The deal was labeled “final and irrevocable.” But three years later, the South Korean administration of then-President Moon Jae-in effectively voided the deal after a government-appointed panel said the deal had did not represent the victims‘ needs appropriately.

In South Korea, Mr. Yoon’s forced labor solution may be more durable, as it is not as “explosive” as the problem of women who served as sex slaves, said Lee Won-deok, an expert on Korea-Korea relations. Japan in Kookmin. Seoul University.

Still, public opinion in South Korea has not been favorable to Yoon’s proposals, with some 56 percent of those polled describing the solution as “humiliating diplomacy.”

What’s more, the legal dispute in South Korea is still alive. Some of the victims are trying to persuade a local court to allow them to seize assets held by Japanese companies in South Korea.

It is important that “Japanese companies take positive steps to provide victims with a justification” for adopting Mr. Yoon’s solution, said Choi Eunmi, an expert on South Korea-Japan relations at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. .

Even that could be a problem in Japan, said Yoshike Mine, a former Japanese diplomat and a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy in Tokyo. Some companies, he said, might resist voluntary contributions to the forced labor fund if they are seen as “retribution” for mistakes that Japan says were addressed in a much earlier process. 1965 agreement between the two countries.

If Japanese companies make voluntary donations to the South Korean fund, “it would certainly change the current narrative, which is that South Korea is doing its best,” he said. jiu bangassistant professor of political science and Asian studies at Colorado College.

But a South Korean court decision to seize Japanese corporate assets could undermine everything Yoon has tried to implement.

For now, the two governments have chosen to put history aside and focus on the need for strategic cooperation.

Both sides pledged to share military intelligence, and Kishida said he wanted to resume “liaison diplomacy” between the two countries.

Both leaders pledged to work together to discuss closer cooperation on economic security. Mr. Kishida suggested that they would try to resume a trilateral dialogue with China at a time when both Japan and South Korea have moved much closer to cooperation with the United States.

While the United States views improving relations between its two strongest allies in Asia as an important step to help counter China’s growing military and economic ambitions, Japan and South Korea are more economically and culturally interdependent with China.

Joining a new cold war between the United States and China is not in Japan’s or South Korea’s best interests, said Daniel Sneider, a professor of international politics at Stanford University. “An interesting consequence of this quick reconciliation,” he said, could be Tokyo and Seoul teaming up to “push the US into a more favorable position and find a more nuanced way of dealing with China.”

The last time the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea met was in 2019 in Tokyo. Suggesting that such meetings should be revived “is a way of saying that this is not zero sum and this is not an anti-China development,” said Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s smart diplomacy to say this.”

In a statement, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that keeping “stable and unrestricted industrial and supply chains is in the interest of the three countries and the entire region. China opposes attempts by certain countries to form exclusionary cliques.”

Ironically, it is anti-Chinese sentiment that could be a binding factor in the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea.

In a recent survey, 81 percent of South Korean respondents expressed negative or very negative sentiments toward China, according to the report. Sinophone Borderlands project.

“I think maybe anti-Chinese sentiment can dampen the potential backlash against the Japan-South Korea deal,” Ms. Bang said. “It becomes a bit easier to swallow, because Japan represents a more lucrative country to cooperate with.”

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