Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul on May 7th. Kishia’s visit occurred after Yoon visited Tokyo in March 2023, and it is the first time the prime minister of Japan has visited South Korea in 12 years. Both leaders want to improve relations between their nations, which aren’t great due to Japan’s occupation of Korea that occurred from 1910 to 1945. During the time of Japan’s occupation, many people in Korea were forced to work for Japanese companies. Improving relations would benefit Japan and South Korea, as it would allow for increases in cooperation and trade. However, improving relations will be difficult as there is opposition to Yoon and Kishida’s policies in both countries.
Before the current prime minister of Japan visited Seoul, The Diplomat reported that Yoon stated, “Japan has transformed from an aggressor to a partner that shares the same universal values with us.” Al Jazeera reported that Kishida talked to reporters about Japan’s occupation of Korea and said, “my heart hurts when I think of the many people who endured terrible suffering and grief under the difficult circumstances of the time.”
These leaders’ support for improving relations between their countries has been caused by an increase in missile launches in North Korea. According to Time, North Korea launched 12 missiles between January and March 2023, and most of these missiles flew over South Korea or Japan. The New York Times reported that both nations, along with the U.S., are negotiating an agreement to share data about missile launches, making it easier to detect incoming ones.
Both countries also have agreed to continue sanctions against North Korea and to encourage North Korea to start negotiations to denuclearize the country. Additionally, after Yoon’s visit to Tokyo, Japan agreed to end export controls against South Korea. This will allow materials used to create semiconductors to be exported to the country, making it possible for more smartphones and computers to be produced in South Korea.
Relations between the two nations worsened in 2018 when the Supreme Court of South Korea ordered Japanese companies Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate victims who were forced to work for the companies while Japan occupied Korea. This was opposed by Japan, as the country gave South Korea $500 million in compensation after signing the Treaty on Basic Relations in 1965, which established relations between the two nations. The money from the treaty helped South Korea by increasing the country’s economic development. The Supreme Court’s order caused Japan to create export controls, along with ending an intelligence sharing pact that monitored missile launches.
Despite the order, Yoon and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin supported South Korean companies that received money from the Treaty on Basic Relations paying victims of forced labor. This was supported by Japan but opposed in South Korea. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Yoon’s approval rating had decreased to 30% after he opposed the Supreme Court’s order.
The South Korean president’s policies have been opposed by the Democratic Party of Korea, which currently has the most seats in the National Assembly. It is possible Yoon will become less supportive of improving relations with Japan if this would help his party, the People Power Party, win more seats in the National Assembly in the 2024 elections. Similarly, Kishida might also become less supportive of improving relations with South Korea, as this has been opposed by some members of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (L.D.P). According to Japan Today, the L.D.P. has criticized South Korea for overreacting to issues related to Japan’s occupation, and many people do not believe relations between the countries can improve.
Japan has apologized for colonizing Korea, and compensated it when the countries established relations. However, there continue to be tensions between the two nations. Kishida and Yoon will both need to increase support for improving relations and convince people that Japan’s colonization of Korea should not prevent that. If everyone agrees, cooperation will increase, and Japan and South Korea will be able to oppose North Korea’s missile launches and support peace in the region.
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