Agreements on the export of microchip components and intelligence cooperation against Pyongyang’s actions emerged from the first trip in 12 years by a Seoul president to Japan. But the real obstacle to reaching other agreements will be overcoming the historical mutual distrust that is still entrenched in public opinion.
Tokyo () – After 12 years of absence, a South Korean president has finally returned to official visit to Japan. Conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol was received in Tokyo yesterday by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a two-day visit where the two Asian democracies are expected to try to rebuild ties.
Despite the many similarities between the two countries, in recent years relations between Japan and South Korea have reached one of the lowest points in their recent history. The origin of the dissent, which jeopardized both commercial and military ties, is the controversial memory of the Japanese colonization of Korea and the many abuses it brought to the South Korean population. Today, several decades later, Korea is still demanding justice for the victims of that time.
An event that significantly damaged relations between the two countries was a ruling by the Seoul Supreme Court in 2018 that ordered two Japanese companies to compensate some South Korean citizens for forcing them to perform forced labor during the colonial period. Yoon’s visit comes after the South Korean government proposed a plan to resolve the court dispute last week.
The resumption of bilateral negotiations is undoubtedly the first result of the visit. Last May, at the NATO summit in Madrid just weeks after Yoon took office, Kishida had found no time to sit down with the president of the other major East Asian democracy allied to the US and their conversation had barely lasted 3-4 minutes. Now, however, according to Asahi ShimbunKishida would be looking into the possibility of visit south korea this summer.
But the meeting also produced concrete results. In fact, the Tokyo government announced the removal of restrictions to export to South Korea three components necessary for the manufacture of microchips (whose production is one of the spearheads of the South Korean economy) and of which the country has an almost monopoly. For its part, Seoul decided to withdraw the lawsuit it had filed against Japan at the World Trade Organization in 2019.
Both countries are also attempting a rapprochement in the military field. Defense cooperation is probably even more important than economic cooperation, given that North Korea has intensified its missile provocations in recent years. In fact, the 2016 agreement on intelligence cooperation, known as GSOMIA, had been in crisis in recent years and information sharing is believed to have been very limited due to political mistrust between Japan and South Korea. Yesterday, however, Yoon declared the complete standardization of GSOMIAstating that “the two countries should be able to share information about North Korean missile launches and trajectories.”
However, the real obstacle to reestablishing ties will undoubtedly be public opinion. While most Japanese seem to support the proposed resolution of the historical dispute underlying the current poor state of relations, polls in South Korea show that the majority of the population continues to distrust Tokyo.