Developments in South Korean-Japanese Relations

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On February 13, 2022 a tripartite summit of foreign ministers from Japan, South Korea, and the United States (US) convened in Hawai’i to debate and consider the escalating nuclear danger presented by North Korea.

In the statement published by the US Department of State, it was claimed that the Secretary of State and Foreign Ministers both criticized the North Korea’s latest ballistic missile launches, expressing grave worry about their disruptive character. They agreed to work closely together on the Korean Peninsula to achieve total denuclearization and long-term peace. They demanded that the international community fully execute relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions pertaining to the North Korea, and that the North Korea discontinue its illegal acts and engage in dialogue instead. The Secretary of State and Foreign Ministers both stated that they have no hostile intentions toward the North Korea and that they remain willing to engage with them without preconditions. The Secretary of State and Foreign Ministers reiterated the importance of the US-Japan and US-South Korea relationships in maintaining regional peace and stability.

While South Korea and Japan came together with this summit, we should remember Japanese-Korean dispute which caused tension between the two states. Under the current Moon administration, however, the relationship has fallen to a new low. The South Korean police chief’s visit to the Liancourt Rocks – called Takeshima by Japan, which claims the islands, and known as Dokdo in Korean – while Washington was hosting the South Korean and Japanese vice foreign ministers for a trilateral consultation was the latest example of the fraught relationship.

Besides that, after the Supreme Court of South Korea ruled in 2018 that Japanese corporations must pay reparations for their use of Korean forced labor during World War II, Tokyo imposed retaliatory export controls on three key chemicals—photoresists, hydrogen fluoride, and fluorinated polyimide—that are essential for the production of South Korean semiconductors and high-end displays for televisions and smartphones. This was a terrible act of economic pressure to settle a historical grievance, and it resulted in the present low point in Seoul-Tokyo ties. The South Korean government and firms swiftly located alternative sources of high-tech materials both inside the South Korea and from other nations, preventing the trade war from affecting the global semiconductor supply chain.

The Japanese vice foreign minister subsequently refused to hold a joint press conference in protest. The episode was a reminder that there is little hope left for improvement in Japan-South Korea relations before Moon leaves office in May 2022.

When Japan-South Korea ties were at a standstill in the past, many in Japan saw the presidential elections in South Korea as an opportunity to “reset” the relationship under a new South Korean president. The most dramatic example is former President Lee Myung-bak, who, despite expressing a strong desire to move Japan-South Korea relations beyond their historical grievances earlier in his presidency, decided to visit the Liancourt Rocks in a desperate attempt to boost his poll numbers near the end of his presidency.

However, with the latest tripartite summit and international developments, Japan-South Korea relations would enter a new phase. Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum of South Korea stated on Tuesday that he expects to enhance his country’s diplomatic ties by leveraging his personal friendship with Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Foreign Minister of Japan. Kim underlined his desire to develop relations between the two nations while Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Hayashi are in office during a news conference with international media groups. Kim, who is well-versed in Japanese issues and had served as vice chair of South Korea’s parliamentary group for friendship with Japan, claimed he met Hayashi through the group and began having private conversations with him. Kim also stated that he had written Hayashi a letter in an attempt to overcome the impasse between the two countries.


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