What's new

News Japan-South Korean normalisation


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
We will use this thread to post future updates on the two nations' efforts to improve their ties.

Yesterday, South Korean FM Park Jin visited Tokyo to meet his Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi to reaffirm the importance of bilateral ties and the three-way relationship with the United States as they renewed efforts to mend relations amid the war in Ukraine and other global tensions.


Both FMs studied in the US and conversed in English.

While the cooperation on how to deal with North Korea might not pose a lot of problems, the same cannot be said about the two nations' dispute over Japan's colonial-era forced mobilisation of Korean labourers, including the issue of comfort women.

South Korean court rulings in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, at the heart of the dispute, to compensate forced Korean laborers. The Japanese companies have refused to comply with the rulings, and the former laborers and their supporters responded by pushing for the forced sale of Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi corporate assets.

I really hope these two countries can overcome their deep prejudices against one another. If Japan and Korea could combine to form a democratic bloc to promote economic ties and things like academic cross-pollination, it could be such a great thing for the people of both countries, and for other people in Asia. Imagine if Korea and Japan could form the core of an Asiazone, with free travel and residence and investment, and a common currency.
I don't think its very likely to happen, but really neither company stands to gain anything from maintaining a historical antagonism.
More steps in the right direction. So far, there have been several ministerial meetings between the two neighbours in South Korea and Japan. Today, a South Korean delegation arrived in Tokyo to discuss the wartime labour issue.

More signs of thawing relations between Japan and South Korea: according to a survey by nonprofit think tank Genron NPO and the Seoul-based East Asia Institute, Japanese and South Koreans see each other more favourably than last year, although ill feelings linger after years of soured political relations.

Japanese who have unfavourable feelings about South Korea stood at 40.3% (down 8.5 percentage points), while South Koreans who hold a negative impression of Japan came to 52.8% (down 10.4 points), according to the poll. [...] The Japanese think tank attributed the slight improvements to the fact that the two countries are both democratic countries allying with the United States on the back of intensifying tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Very awkward and undiplomatic behaviour by PM Kishida: while South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol was eager to meet his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, Kishida showed little inclination and even considered cancelling the meeting.

According to those close to the prime minister, he was incensed by that report [about a bilateral meeting] and told associates, "They should not say something about what has not been decided. I feel like not meeting at all." A Kishida associate said, "The prime minister was angry because he actually said he would not meet" with Yoon. A high-ranking official in the prime minister's office said, "At a time when gradual steps have to be accumulated to restore trust, we could not understand what their intent was." According to sources, the South Korean side repeatedly asked for a meeting and left the time and location up to Tokyo. In the end, a room in the building where the Japanese delegation to the United Nations is headquartered was chosen for the meeting.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I had the impression Kishida was always keen on shaking hands with Western leaders, beaming from one ear to the other in front of the cameras, but quite arrogant and haughty when dealing with his neighbours.

After meeting with Yoon, Kishida told associates, "They showed that they are willing to resolve the issues. We will have to see what they can come up with in the future."

Yes, please keep talking and lose the attitude.

Had we seen (more of) such actions and statements from Japanese leaders, Japanese and South Koreans could already be on much better terms.

On Saturday, former PM Hatoyama apologised at a memorial ceremony on the island of Jindo, 349 kilometres south of Seoul, for Japanese sailors who died in the 1597 Battle of Myeongnyang:

"In the past, Japan caused deep suffering to the (Korean) people. I am not sure if your anguished heart can be healed from this apology. … We (as Japanese) are obliged to keep apologising - until the people with wounded hearts feel they no longer need the apology from us."

Remarkable words.

Seems like an odd event for apologizing if the Koreans were victors and they were memorializing Japanese sailors that died. But the sentiment is admirable. Probably he wouldn't say such things if he weren't retired from politics.
Last edited:
A South Korean Court ruled that a Buddhist statue stolen from Japan has to be returned. An appeals court ruled that a 50-cm-tall statue of a bodhisattva was the property of a Japanese temple from which it was stolen in 2012, overturning a lower-court ruling that the statue belonged to a Korean temple.

Hopefully a harbinger of improving ties.


The statue's return had been put on hold for years after a South Korean temple claimed ownership of it, insisting that it was likely looted by medieval Japanese pirates before it ended up at a temple on Tsushima island, presumably in 1527. The South Korean temple is likely to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said his government will encourage Seoul to facilitate the statue's swift return to Japan. The 50-centimeter (20-inch) gilt bronze Buddha statue was one of two stolen from Tsushima's Kannonji temple by thieves who attempted to sell them in South Korea. South Korea's government returned the other statue to the temple soon after police recovered the items from the thieves, who were arrested and prosecuted. But Buseoksa temple in the western coastal city of Seosan filed a lawsuit to prevent the government from sending back the other statue, saying Buseoksa is the rightful owner. Korean historical records indicate that the statue, which is being kept at a state research institute in the central city of Daejeon, was created about 1330 to be enshrined at Buseoksa. The Daejeon District Court ruled in 2017 that the government should return the statue to Buseoksa, saying it was likely taken to Japan through theft or pillage. But the Daejeon High Court overturned the ruling on Wednesday, saying Japan's Kannonji had acquired legal ownership of the statue through continuous possession.

News we like:

South Korea's Yoon says Japan has transformed into a partner

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday said Japan was a partner nation that shares universal values, indicating that Seoul seeks to mend the fractious ties with its former occupier at a time of rising regional threats. A century after the March First Independence Movement, Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us," Yoon said in a speech to commemorate the 104th anniversary of a protest movement against Japan's 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. "Today the Republic of Korea and Japan cooperate on issues of security and economy," Yoon said. "We also work together to cope with global challenges.

Paywall alert:

Japan has picked up the ball and hailed South Korea's efforts to solve the wartime labour compensation dispute: South Korea suggested setting up a foundation backed by the South Korean government paying compensation to Korean plaintiffs instead of requiring two Japanese companies to do so as ordered by South Korean court rulings. While Japan welcomed the plan today, the proposed solution faced severe criticism in South Korea.

"The Japanese haven't paid a penny. … It's a complete victory for them," Lim Jae-sung, the attorney who won the landmark 2018 Supreme Court case, said Monday, calling a joint scholarship fund a total non sequitur because it unduly releases Japan from any and all burdens of blame. Reaffirming past apologies are no more relevant, Lim noted, because that is not an apology for this particular case and that Japan would not reverse the position that there was nothing illegal in the way labor was organized at the time. "The victims alive today had all rejected to agree to what the government proposed," Lim said referring to three complainants out of the 15 affected by the 2018 ruling. Many more are still fighting similar court battles. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, dismissed the resolution, saying it marks the most humiliating defeat in history. Korea-Japan ties dipped to a new low before the conservative Yoon government took power in May, because Lee's progressive party had refused to agree to a similar version of what Yoon proposed Monday. "The Yoon government is letting Japan walk free of its wartime crimes and we won't let that happen. … We will make sure that never happens with the people," Lee said.

South Korean media and civic groups called President Yoon, whose approval ratings are hovering around 35%, a traitor. That doesn't bode well for the new thaw between the two countries.

"The conservatives appear to be betting that even though this deal will be unpopular now, if they can get two administrations in a row, then the problem has a better chance of going away," Richey said. "They are trying to institutionalize better relations with Japan, which have long been a priority for South Korea's conservatives, while hoping that they can score a victory in [the next presidential election] in 2027, and that this issue will be water under the bridge at that point and there won't be enough to be gained politically by dredging it up again," Richey said. "In the long term it might not pay off, but Yoon's team seems to believe that the short-term benefits in trade and currying favor with the U.S. make it a worthwhile risk," Richey added.

Paywall alert:

In the past few days, there have been a lot of new developments in the Korean-Japanese dialogue: next week, President Yoon will travel to Tokyo for a summit with PM Kishida. Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon Hee, will visit on 16 March at the invitation of the Japanese government. The two leaders are expected to discuss various issues, from history to security to the economy. In an editorial, the JT argues that Japan must do much more to help Yoon overcome domestic opposition to a forward-looking agenda. Fifty-nine per cent of Koreans oppose the deal to resolve a wartime labour row between the country and Japan that would see Seoul compensate former Korean labourers.

The result by Gallup Korea released Friday reflects public antagonism toward the resolution, which would not require direct payments from Japanese companies, regarding alleged forced labour during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The survey found 59% of respondents oppose the plan as they believe it provides no apology or reparations from Japan, while 35% said the solution would help bilateral relations and national interests. The government of South Korea has decided that the future is more important than the past — and offered Japan a settlement of one of the long-standing disputes that poisoned their relationship, wartime labour.

Japan also considers inviting President Yoon to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

The NYT provided an excellent in-depth analysis of the wartime labour dispute between Japan and South Korea, highlighting the historical context of the issue and the latest development in the ongoing conflict between Japan and South Korea over wartime forced labour compensation.

GOGOGOGOGOGO! Keep this momentum going!
Would love to see two of the biggest democracies in Asia cooperate more closely on trade, economy/finance, and national security even. I would also love to see them implement a visa-free zone between the two countries where residents could travel and reside anywhere anywhere in the zone (kind of like Australia and New Zealand).
This week, a historical summit between Japan and South Korea was had, in fact, the first summit between Japanese and South Korean leaders since 2011 to address thorny bilateral issues, including Japan's use of Korean forced labour before and during the second world war. There was more enthusiasm on the Korean side. Still, both Pres Yoon and PM Kishida did their best to break the ice over two dinners: one at a fancy Ginza restaurant and a 二次会 over Mr Yoon's favourite dish, omurice, a popular dish of an omelette layered over fried rice.

While the wartime issues were avoided this time, some progress was made:
  • Seoul dropped its demand that Japanese companies compensate Korean victims forced into labour during World War II (which I find more than disgraceful and deplorable by those former zaibatsus, cf. the restitution German conglomerates paid after WWII)
  • Japan will end its 2019 restrictions on technology exports to South Korea
  • both nations will resume their security cooperation.

Japan and South Korea also agreed on resuming their so-called shuttle diplomacy.

Hopes for a resolution to the dispute rose last week when the South Korean government announced it would set up a foundation to compensate former forced labourers without Japan's involvement. In return, the Japanese government reaffirmed its previous statements of remorse over its colonial rule and said it would lift export controls, imposed in 2019, on materials needed by South Korea's semiconductor industry. Kishida welcomed the compensation plan and spoke of "bolstering relations" during Yoon's visit. But the measure has angered some of the victims, who say it falls short of their demand for a full apology and direct compensation from the Japanese companies involved. Recent polls found that nearly 60% of South Koreans opposed the compensation scheme, while 57% of Japanese supported it.

For now, the two governments have chosen to set aside history and focus on the need for strategic cooperation. Both sides committed to military intelligence sharing, and Mr Kishida said he wanted to resume "shuttle diplomacy" between the two countries. Both leaders pledged to work together to discuss closer cooperation on economic security. Mr Kishida suggested that they would try to resume a trilateral dialogue with China at a time when both Japan and South Korea have been drawing much closer in cooperation with the United States. While the United States regards the improving relations between its two strongest allies in Asia as an important step to help counter China's rising military and economic ambitions, Japan and South Korea are more economically and culturally interdependent with China.


A look at English-language South Korean media:

South Koreans remained sceptical of the rapprochement with Japan. Interestingly, South Koreans over 60 were less reluctant than younger generations.

The Korea Times spoke of a milestone reached between the two nations but stated it was too early to hail the summit's success. According to experts, the unresolved historical disputes may hinder a 'new era' of ties:

In response to criticisms about the absence of a straightforward apology from Kishida, a senior official at the Korean presidential office said the Japanese leader's remarks inheriting the past government's views on history seem "sufficient" at this point. "With the absence of a sincere apology or meaningful reactions from Japan, it will be difficult for Korea to maintain its diplomatic leverage in discussions on other pending issues such as Fukushima nuclear water and the Sado mines," Yang said. "And when the two governments begin to discuss the matters in earnest, Yoon's diplomatic capability will be put to the test."

The Korea Herald focused on the lacking support from South Koreans who remain cautious over the thaw with their neighbour.

However, Koreans remain cautious over the dramatic progress made in less than two weeks of Japan turning from "frenemy" to "bestie." Some say Yoon should have considered national sentiments toward Japan, as many still demand a proper apology for the country's wartime atrocities. Some view the summit as a breakthrough in mending frayed ties and a move towards the future. "I don't understand why the Korean government is taking such a low profile in this process with Japan.," said a 40-year-old restaurant owner in Seoul. "The government should not ignore the victims and the nation's feelings," she said.

Yonhap looked at the improving business ties, the removal of export curbs by Japan, and the normalisation of the military intelligence-sharing deal with Japan and reported on Pres Yoon's speech to Japanese and Korean students at Keio University.

"I believe it is essential that South Korea and Japan, which share universal values, work together to improve and develop the bilateral relationship for the two countries' common interests and world peace and prosperity," Yoon said before some 170 students. "The two countries' development is significant for all of you young people, who are the future generation," he said, adding he and Kishida will do their best to help the two countries young people actively engage with each other. Yoon said if Japanese and Korean youths engage and cooperate freely and energetically, it will not be long before the two nations see the synergy effect from the trust and friendship between young generations.

Hankyoreh remained very critical of the summit:

Kishida did not issue a direct apology but reportedly called on Yoon to carry out a 2015 agreement between the two countries on the issue of Japan's wartime sexual slavery. The Kyodo News reported that Kishida asked Yoon to faithfully implement the so-called "comfort women" agreement during the meeting, citing a Japanese government official.

JoonAng Daily also focused on the high-profile conference between the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and Pres Yoon's call for closer cooperation between Korea and Japan in semiconductors, batteries, electric vehicles and other high-tech industries at a meeting with business leaders of both countries.

Meanwhile, the first ladies prepared traditional Japanese sweets at the prime minister's residence in Tokyo, doing their best to mend the cultural relations between the two countries.

Korean first lady Kim Keon-hee had several opportunities to build a friendship with Japanese first lady Yuko Kishida as the two countries' leaders held a bilateral summit in Tokyo Thursday. Kim met with Kishida at the prime minister's residence Thursday at the invitation of the Japanese first lady, said presidential spokesman Lee Do-woon in a statement Friday. The meeting between Kim and Kishida was the first in four months since they met at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November. After a tour of the prime minister's residence led by Kishida, the first ladies made traditional Japanese sweets, or wagashi, together and drank matcha. According to Lee, Kishida spoke about her hometown of Hiroshima, and the two first ladies discussed various cultural exchanges. Kim gave Kishida traditional Korean confectionary such as yugwa, gwapyeon and tea. "I hope that the people of both countries will be able to have exchanges more closely as much as we shared our hearts today," Kim said to Kishida Lee. Kishida replied that she hoped the "relationship between the two countries will further mature through this visit to Japan."

Yes, they will have to meet halfway and, for the time being, focus on issues of geopolitical and economic nature. The current South Korean government has displayed a lot of goodwill and honest effort, and I hope the Kishida administration will pick up the ball. Japan must get off its high horse and meet them at eye level. These two countries have so much in common and so much to benefit from closer ties. And both need friends, considering their neighbourhood: find common ground, deal with the issues of the past, and move on from there. I'm hopeful. :)
Today, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that it amended and relaxed rules over exporting three semiconductor materials to South Korea with immediate effect.

Since July 2019, three key materials that are used in semiconductors and OLED panels have been put under stricter export controls. Japanese exporters have to meet strict criteria before they can obtain permits to ship those materials to South Korea, such as demonstrating that they had established internal export rules and on-site inspections. Separately on Thursday, the South Korean government announced that it would withdraw the complaint it had filed in September 2019 to the World Trade Organization over Japan's export clampdown, citing unfair measures.

Paywall alert:
Nikkei on why the South Korean-Japanese rapprochement might be in jeopardy: the public's pent-up frustration over the history between the countries continues to cast a shadow over future relations.

About 20,000 people, including opposition lawmakers and labor union members, gathered for a political rally in central Seoul on March 25. Lee Jae-myung, who heads the main opposition Democratic Party, criticized Yoon at the event for his March 16 meeting with Kishida, and urged him to withdraw his plan to compensate Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II through a foundation with private donors. [...] "There are forces within South Korean society that promote exclusionism and anti-Japanese sentiment for political gain," he also said, taking a swipe at his opposition. Many South Korean news outlets slammed Yoon for failing to secure Japanese concessions at the summit. Kishida offered no words of sympathy to the former laborers and their families, which was taken as a snub to Seoul's request for a "sincere response."

However, leaning into anti-Japanese sentiment is not necessarily a winning strategy in South Korea. Members of the public are tired of protracted tensions with Japan. Lee is also losing clout as he fights corruption charges. South Korea has counted on Japan to respond in kind to its overtures given their political cost and is often frustrated when things fail to go as expected.

The ball is now in Japan's court:

The big question is what comes next. The South Korean opposition is only expected to ramp up criticism over Yoon's Japan policy ahead of the legislative election in April 2024. Yoon has vowed not to use Japan relations for political gain at home, and is expected to stand his ground on his decisions. But South Korea now "considers it Japan's turn to show a sincere response," said a source at Japan's Foreign Ministry. Before the March summit, Seoul urged Kishida to read out past Japanese statements expressing remorse over its colonial past. It also wanted companies named in lawsuits over wartime labor to be involved in resolving the issue.

Paywall alert:
According to South Korea's foreign ministry, the bereaved families of ten South Koreans who won court cases over being forced to work under Japanese colonial rule have accepted the compensation proposed by Seoul. South Korea announced last month that its companies would compensate people forced to work under Japan's 1910-45 rule as it pushes to end a spat that has undercut U.S.-led efforts to present a unified front against China and North Korea.

Those who have agreed to accept the government plan are bereaved families of 10 deceased victims among 15 in cases where South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay reparations in 2018. The families of two deceased victims as well as the only three victims involved in the cases still alive have all rejected the government proposal. "The bereaved families of 10 victims expressed hope that this issue be promptly resolved, and agreed to accept the compensation under the government plan," the foreign ministry said in a statement. South Korea will continue efforts to seek understanding from the victims and their families, the ministry added.

Paywall alert:
More steps towards normalisation: Japan and South Korea held their first security talks in five years. According to Japan's defence ministry, the two sides exchanged views on the response to North Korea and the potential for bilateral cooperation -- or trilateral cooperation with the U.S. -- in the Indo-Pacific region. They committed to communicating closely with each other as part of efforts to strengthen coordination.

I wonder why these formal meetings always appear to be out of a wax museum, though. 😅


One senior Japanese government official said there was potential that the two sides would no longer quarrel over the facts concerning the 2018 radar incident, given that any concessions made in the dispute could translate to public backlash back home. The two sides are thought to be exploring a proposal for measures that would seek to prevent the same kind of incident from happening again. "There are various approaches, whether it is fundamentally resolving the understanding of the facts, or to look ahead to the future and prevent a reoccurrence," Adm. Ryo Sakai, chief of staff of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, told reporters in March. "The time is ripe for taking steps toward repairing relations."

Paywall alert:
Great news! Although for some reason that picture reminds me of this scene from the Chinese drama "Joy of Life", which is definitely worth watching. The scene depicts a very different situation, btw.

On 24 April, South Korea returned Japan to its preferential trade partner list, and Japan plans on reciprocating shortly.


Meanwhile, PM Kishida is considering visiting South Korea in early May.

If realized, Kishida's trip to South Korea would be the first by a Japanese leader in five years. Both governments are working on a plan for Kishida to visit on May 7 and 8, the sources said Friday, an apparent bid to promote better relations ahead of the May 19-21 Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima. Kishida and Yoon agreed to improve Tokyo-Seoul relations, which soured in recent years to the worst level in decades, and visit each other's countries more often during their talks in March in Tokyo.

Yesterday, PM Kishida arrived in Seoul, resuming mutual visits of the leaders of Japan and South Korea after a twelve-year hiatus. He declared that his 'heart hurts' over the pain caused by the Japanese occupation.



Mr. Kishida said Japan stood by the past statements in which some of his predecessors expressed remorse and apologies. But he went no further than that, merely saying that "my heart ached" when he thought of the suffering of the Koreans. His words fell short of the clear and direct apology that many South Koreans, including the head of the main opposition party, had demanded. But Mr Yoon said he would not dwell on seeking such an apology. "It's not something we can unilaterally demand; it's something that should come naturally from the other side's sincerity," Mr Yoon said during a joint news conference with Mr Kishida. "We must abandon the notion that we cannot take a single step ahead for future cooperation until the past history is resolved."

Top Bottom