Despite Meeting Between Leaders, Lingering Distrust Stymies Japanese-South Korean Relations

Mixed reactions from media and politicians have appeared in Japan and South Korea following Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s meeting in New York last week. Though the thirty-minute discussion received some praise in international media, the reception in South Korea and Japan show that the path to true reconciliation is still a long ways away and will require more years of work.

American Vice President Kamala Harris, arriving in Japan to attend Shinzo Abe’s funeral, also met with officials from across the Indo-Pacific region who were in attendance, including South Korean Prime Minister (subordinate to South Korea’s President) Han Duck-soo and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida. Though no official statement has been released regarding the exact discussions between these leaders, the Associated Press says Harris will continue the US’s policy of “gingerly trying to nudge along the process” of reconciliation.

However, the meeting has not been met with universal encouragement. Members of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), the liberal opposition party that controls the South Korean legislature, released statements describing the meeting as “a catastrophe” and an “international disgrace.” Korean media also released lukewarm statements, with the Korean Herald criticizing Yoon for appearing too eager to hold the meeting in order to garner wavering public support and putting South Korea in a worse negotiating position, while the Korean Times noted the weak positions of the respective leaders may impede the possibility of long lasting policy change.

This last statement is in reference to the in-flux political positions of Kishida and Yoon in their respective countries. Kishida is propped up by a small faction of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and is facing steep public disapproval for the hosting of Shinzo Abe’s state funeral, which around 60% of Japan opposed, as well as Abe and the LDP’s extensive ties to the controversial Unification Church. Yoon, in turn, heads a minority government with the opposition DPK holding a strong majority over his People Power Party, coupled with low approval ratings that dropped as low as 19% in August.

Relations between the people and governments of Japan and South Korea have been unstable and complex since the end of WWII. Though ostensibly bedrock states in the United States’ informal Pacific alliance aligned against China and North Korea, the two continue to clash over matters like trade, as well as the Japanese government’s continued denial/downplaying of war crimes committed by Japanese soldiers and officials against Koreans during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. As recently as 2019, Korean courts ruled that surviving victims of Japanese war crimes, including forced labor and sexual slavery, could sue Japanese companies for reparations, and Japanese-Korean relations reached a new low under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in. Some observers, such as the Korean Times, pointed out that a number of previous conservative South Korean governments, when dealing with flagging approval, will whip up grievances against Japan as a way to pander to Korean nationalism, and that Moon Jae-in was also initially seen as pro-reconciliation before his own dip in popularity saw him to take a more belligerent tone.

The dark memories of Japan and Korea’s history may serve as a point of tension and division between the two nations for decades to come. But neither Japan nor South Korea can possibly benefit from another 80 years of strained tensions and fruitless political gestures.  The two nations have much to gain from closer relations, not just security from the aggression of China and North Korea. In an increasingly multipolar world, Japan and South Korea stand to emerge as a prosperous, strongly democratic bloc in the Pacific whose highly developed economies can enhance one another and those across the Pacific. There is no doubt the history of Japan and Korea is ugly and will need to be reckoned with, but these two nations have changed dramatically in the intervening eight decades, as has the world, and a radical change like this is perhaps more possible than ever.