South Korea and Japan at Crossroads for Wholly New Relations

President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at their summit on March 16.
President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at their summit on March 16.

The South Korean Supreme Court’s final ruling in 2019 in favor of those forced to labor during the Japanese occupation led to a serious deterioration of Korea-Japan relations.

To improve relations with Japan despite public opposition, President Yoon Suk-yeol formulated a proposal for third-party compensation for the forced labor victims and normalized the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), as the United States, South Korea, and Japan are increasingly required to cooperate amid North Korea’s nuclear threat and the new Cold War along with global supply chain reshaping. Welcoming his move, the White House also said it would be an important new chapter for the alliance of the three.

However, less than two weeks after the agreement on normalization, the Japanese government denied the forced labor and claimed Dokdo as its own territory in its textbook authorization, catering to right-wingers. It means its history awareness will not change, as Japan has a cabinet system along with a collapsed opposition with the right-wingers going unchecked.

Accordingly, the past month has shown a confirmation that any real improvement in their relations is impossible without Japan’s history awareness based on the truth. Telling the truth in the textbook is important in this regard. Japan is asking South Korea, “How long should we apologize?” but it must first answer South Korea’s question, “How long will you keep hiding the truth?” Without the change of Japanese government’s standing, South Korea and Japan can’t be close emotionally even if they are neighbors.

Back in 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo announced the joint partnership declaration for the 21st century, a historic event in terms of their bilateral exchange. It is their first official agreement in which Japan clearly mentioned reflection and apology. At the time, Japan was a global leader and South Korea was not. Now, the two are partners of equal standing sharing a lot of interests. They are at a crossroads for wholly new relations.

In South Korea, many of those against their president mention what he has done in relation to Japan. The same applies to advocates. This shows how entangled and complicated the relations are. South Korea and Japan had a summit in March and KORUS and trilateral summits are scheduled for April and May, respectively. Anticipations are high that the talks will make things much better.

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