South Korea and Japan Relations: Moving Beyond the Horizon

Under its new president Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea has re-imagined the state’s role in today’s changing geopolitical landscape as a global pivotal state. Global pivotal state is about focusing on issues beyond the Korean peninsula, moving beyond the subject of North Korea, and focusing on making a meaningful contribution with closer cooperation with its ally, the U.S. With a new president in Seoul, not only the role of South Korea is changing, but it is again becoming the standard fluctuating policy we see as administration changes from conservative to democrats. But this time, Japan’s role is becoming more critical in the South Korean strategical equation. Before elaborating on Japan’s vital importance, let me explain why the shift is leading to changing relations between South Korea and Japan.

Today South Korea is standing at a vital moment in history where it has to choose between its ally, the U.S, on the one hand, and its most significant economic partner China. This tough choice was in the making for quite some time, and it became evident during the former conservative president Park Geun-hye, as she called it the Asia’s Paradox. However, with recent global development like the COVID-19 pandemic, supply-chain resilience, and the Ukraine war, many states are feeling the pressure to adapt to the incoming uncertainty by making bets on the side they think will secure their strategic interests. This situation of Bipolarity in Northeast Asia gives rise to the importance of Japan for South Korea and the need for, if not better, but sustainable and consistent diplomatic and political relations. The developing geopolitical situation is akin to what South Korea faced before normalizing relations with the Socialist states of China and Russia in the region under former president Roh Tae-woo’s administration.

Japan and South Korean relation

Traditionally, South Korea’s relations with Japan have been overshadowed by the colonial period under Imperial Japanese rule. As a postcolonial state that suffered under Japanese rule from 1910-1945, some issues remain in the mindscapes of Korean citizens and are routinely played by political parties domestically. The comfort women issue is one of the prominent subjects that kindle emotions among the citizenry in South Korea and even across the 38th Parallel. They had some agreement between the states to settle the matter in 1965, 1998 and 2015. However, it remains a subject that is not considered settled because of the lack of inclusivity of women rights groups and victims in agreements concluded. Usually, the conservative administration had tried to improve relations with Japan in the recent decade under Park and Abe as the political heads. Under President Yoon and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the relationship seems to be going positively.

The change in perspective in Seoul toward Tokyo is not new and is usually seen when conservative administration comes to power. This is a pattern under conservative administrations as they work closely with the U.S. on security issues, mainly focusing on North Korean threats. Japan also shares with South Korea the threat of North Korean Nuclear and ballistic weapons, and as a vital security player in the region, it seems rational to work together. 

However, the need for better and closer relations in the region is now going beyond North Korea as the common factor. South Korea and Japan face many factors emerging as a strategic threat in the region. These developments have the potential to destabilize the peace and security as well as the prosperity of the region.  The common perception is mainly driven by the redefinition of security in the world, where we see the technology being used as a tool in geopolitics and geo-economics by great powers, moving away from its traditional role as a neutral tool. There are three critical issues where both the countries can cooperate strategically.

South Korea-Japan Cooperation

South Korea recognizes the changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region and wants to be a part of an alliance that stands with the Rule of Law and FOIP. The expression of interest in being a part of Quad signals this particular intent of working closely with like-minded countries in the region. In addition, the emergence of AUKUS has restarted conversation on future South Korea nuclear collaboration. All of this means that the security environment will change drastically in the coming years, and ‘fence-sitting’ by states would become a difficult task to undertake when based on a volatile geopolitical landscape sandwiched between two great power competitions. Therefore, it becomes rational for South Korea to work closely with Japan on security threats facing the region ranging from North Korean nuclear weapons ensuring the rule of law, maritime security, and illegal fishing. The administration in the U.S. wants both the countries to work together to address the challenges of the region and beyond, as stated in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Apart from issues of conventional security, another subject that has captured the minds of policy-makers and government is the issue of supply-chain resilience. South Korea has benefited from the cheap manufacturing capacity provided by China for a long time, undermining the challenges it may face in an extreme case like that offered by Pandemic. The unreliable supply chains can influence countries’ economies to the extent that they can directly affect domestic politics, as we saw in the case of the shortage of Urea in South Korea. Nonetheless, this issue becomes more vital when strategic sectors like semiconductors shipbuilding and emerging technologies like EV Battery come into the picture. South Korea and Japan share perspectives on the criticality of these sectors. They have worked with the U.S. and other states like Taiwan in the region to ensure robust and trustworthy supply chains. Recently South Korea also joined IPEF keeping this in mind.

Finally, South Korea and Japan are a few liberal democratic states in the Indo-Pacific region that respect the International Law and Freedom of Navigation on open seas and air. Being export-based economies, both the states have stakes in ensuring that normative frameworks of international liberal order stay intact, and having open seas are an essential part of it. South Korea has seen during the Korean War and subsequently during the cold war era how the interests of great powers have superseded the international rule-based order and interests of third countries. Therefore, any change in the international order that makes it vulnerable to manipulation by more countries is seen as a concern in South Korea. It mainly affects the small and middle powers that see rule-based international order as a common denominator for countries and relies on it for norm-influencing and influencing policies. Any jeopardizing of the order would make it meaningless and shrink the same for cooperation on issues of global concerns, mainly because the interests of a few will lead institutions to few.

South Korea and Japan are now in a situation where the options to cooperate go beyond just the threat of North Korea. The emerging world order is under threat from authoritarian forces like China in the Indo-Pacific, and it’s a matter of time when the state security will become entangled with new critical technologies. With high stakes in emerging technologies, both South Korea and Japan will have to work together to ensure safe and stable supply chains that are resilient and trustworthy. There remains an impending issue concerning Comfort women, which should be dealt with in a bi-partisan manner so that relations remain consistent and unaffected by external influence. With like-minded states cooperating in the Indo-Pacific region, a new phase of solid ties between South Korea and Japan will help in setting up a framework that keeps the process of checks and balances working, which now seems to be slowly being influenced by powerful states in the region.

[Photo by Korean Culture and Information Service, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Abhishek Sharma is a doctoral student in Korean Studies at the University of Delhi, India.

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