Japan and South Korea share a complex relationship that is shaped by a sequence of occurrences in history. Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945, which dates back to the early 20th century, was a critical time that completely impacted the two countries relationship. After Japan was driven out of Korea in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was split into North and South Korea, which resulted in the founding of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 1948. However, this division also brought with it a new set of difficulties. Japan and South Korea have gone through several ups and downs since then. What is the issue between South Korea and Japan? Are their relationships getting better? Find all the answers in this article.
South Korea and Japan’s Plagued History
The diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea have been plagued by a sequence of unfortunate events that have left enduring scars on their shared history. South Korea became independent on August 15, 1945, and North Korea on September 9, 1945. North Korea launched an invasion in June 1950 to take over South Korea. The assault was effectively halted by United Nations forces made up of South Korean, American, European, and foreign soldiers. In an attempt to weaken Communism in North Korea, the UN came dangerously close to seizing the country. However, UN forces were obliged to withdraw from North Korea as a result of China’s entrance into the conflict, leading to a military standoff along lines that resembled the 38th parallel. 1953 saw the signing of an armistice that is still in place, and the cease-fire line that was drawn that year still divides North and South Korea.
The signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 1965 was a significant step toward trying to improve their diplomatic ties. Concerning the post-colonial aftermath, the treaty aimed to provide financial reparations to those who had suffered under Japanese rule. The connection remained strained despite these attempts due to historical grievances, particularly the problem of “comfort women”. When the issue came up again in the 1990s, there was a public uproar, and tensions between South Korea and Japan increased.
The absence of a complete settlement of historical disputes has frequently sparked diplomatic tensions in recent decades. Not only has the debate over historical concerns affected government ties, but popular opinion in both countries has been greatly impacted as well. In the history of Japan-South Korea relations, protest calls for apology, and disagreements over historical accounts have all been recurring topics.
The ongoing historical challenges, geographical disputes, and geopolitical factors contribute to the complexity of their relationship. Resolving and acknowledging past grievances is still essential to building a more secure and cooperative future between South Korea and Japan. The shadows of the past continue to cast a long and often contentious history over their bilateral relations.
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Japan and South Korea’s Economic and Diplomatic Ties
Economic and diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea play a vital role in determining the dynamics of East Asian geopolitics. Since the post-World War II era, these ties have undergone significant change, characterized by times of collaboration, economic interdependence, and occasional diplomatic tensions.
South Korea and Japan are both important global economic actors that make substantial contributions to the global economy. Among the top economies are South Korea, which is frequently referred to as an economic powerhouse, and Japan is the third-largest economy in the world. Significant trade and investment flows demonstrate their economic interdependence. South Korea’s exports to Japan have grown at a yearly rate of 2.16% over the past 26 years, from $17.3 billion in 1995 to $30.1 billion in 2021. Japan exported $51.1 billion to South Korea in 2021.
However, economic collaboration has been challenging. Economic relations between the two countries have periodically been strained by trade disputes and protectionist policies. For example, a trade dispute arose in 2019 over Japan’s export restrictions on essential commodities required by South Korea’s technological sector. This brought their economic relations to a sharper point by sparking a series of retaliatory actions and raising tensions.
The United States’ engagement further complicates the diplomatic picture.
Important regional allies of the United States include Japan and South Korea, and the trilateral relationship adds another level of diplomatic complexity. The United States’ influence is most noticeable in defense and security cooperation and initiatives to mediate and restore relations between South Korea and Japan.
Positive Shift in Japan-South Korea Relationship
On March 16, 2023, the leaders of Japan and South Korea met for the first time in twelve years. Rebuilding security and economic connections was the goal shared by South Korean President Yun Sukyol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The partnership between China and North Korea was the primary cause of the improvement in their ties. A decade ago, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Xi Jinping of China were not in power, but a lot changed over time.
Yoon and Kishida signaled a change of direction after examining the improved ties between China and North Korea. The two decided to pick up the quote “Shuttle diplomacy” during the discussions. Along with that, they decided to resolve a trade issue about reparations for Koreans who were forced to work as slaves under Japanese colonial authority. In the meantime, Pyongyang, as usual, responded to this conference by shooting a long-range ballistic missile. The missile touched down in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In March 2023, North Korea conducted its third weapons test, which involved the firing of two submarine-based missiles and medium-range rockets.
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Future Orientation of the Japan-South Korea Relationship
President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea’s visit to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo indicated a further thaw of relations between the two countries. Due to concerns in South Korea-Japan relations, it was the first official visit to Tokyo by a South Korean president in 12 years.
Seoul and Tokyo benefit diplomatically from the Yoon-Kishida summit, which also gives them more political momentum to forge bilateral ties that are “future-oriented.” Stronger trilateral ties between the United States, Japan, and South Korea were also encouraged by the meeting. Consequently, it has favorable effects on the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the Biden administration. However, there are significant domestic political challenges facing the Yoon administration. The way Yoon has handled the Japanese forced labor issue is unpopular with about 60% of South Koreans.
The conference that took place in March 2023 was a big step toward the goal of mending the bilateral ties between Japan and South Korea that were started after Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022. Before their meeting in Tokyo, the two leaders had met four times. As the three nations held about 40 trilateral meetings in 2022, improved bilateral relations have also facilitated trilateral relations between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
Japan’s largest business federation, Keidanren, announced intentions to create a joint scholarship fund with South Korean enterprises to support youth exchanges, intending to foster relationships throughout civil society. Yoon was accompanied by a group of prominent South Korean businessmen when they met with their Japanese counterparts. Exchanges between individuals will strengthen connections between Korea and Japan from the bottom up as well as the top down.
South Korea and Japan’s Efforts to Stable China Relations
Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech on the 74th anniversary of China at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on the 28th of September, 2023. China’s attempts to counter Washington’s export restrictions on cutting-edge technologies are evident in the efforts to reestablish diplomatic ties between South Korea, Japan, and China. These efforts include the announcement of a potential visit to Seoul by Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the decision to reconvene a trilateral leaders’ summit. It also demonstrates Seoul’s and Tokyo’s wishes to reopen discussions about divisive matters with Beijing.
At a conference in August 2023 at Camp David, the US presidential retreat, leaders from South Korea, Japan, and the United States reinforced their trilateral security relationship in response to the mounting military threat posed by North Korea and China’s periodic military maneuvers surrounding Taiwan.
Beijing protested the “Camp David Summit” declaration that condemned China for its assertive actions in the South China Sea. In April, Yoon’s statements attributed tensions around Taiwan to efforts aimed at forcefully changing the existing situation that led to a diplomatic conflict between Beijing and Seoul.
Russel, who is currently the vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, stated that efforts by South Korea, Japan, and China to resume leader exchanges can stop current issues from getting worse at a time when tensions between Beijing and the two main American allies in northeast Asia are high. Russell stated he believes the security alliance between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington will not be jeopardized by moves to restore diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Although relations between South Korea and Japan were normalized in 1965, genuine bilateral reconciliation and the best possible diplomatic, security, and economic cooperation are still threatened by unresolved historical conflicts. Previous attempts to foster better relations between the two nations and bilaterally with the US have often emphasized a “future-oriented” strategy that prioritizes shared security and economic goals. However, the absence of a comprehensive and long-lasting settlement to the past complaints has also resulted in ongoing bilateral discomfort and sporadic episodes of increased hostility.
The meeting of South Korean and Japanese leaders in March 2023 paved the road to a better relationship between the two nations. Both countries are trying to resolve tensions and strengthen connections between the two countries.
Does South Korea Have Good Relations With Japan?
There are close military, economic, and cultural relations between South Korea and Japan. They are both US military partners and have the second and fourth-largest economies in Asia, respectively.
Is South Korea Close to Japan?
Yes, South Korea is geographically close to Japan. The two countries are separated by the Sea of Japan, which is also known as the East Sea in Korea. The distance between them is 942 km.