To underscore the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the long-awaited visit by South Korea’s president this week, Japan’s prime minister hosted not just one, but two, dinners on Thursday night in Tokyo.
Shortly after Yoon Suk Yeol, of South Korea, told reporters that “frozen ties should be thawed” and Fumio Kishida, of Japan, hailed “a new chapter” in their long-fraught relationship, they went with their wives to a traditional restaurant in Tokyo’s luxury Ginza district. The two leaders then broke off for a more casual meal of “omurice,” a popular dish of an omelet layered over fried rice. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, noted that Mr. Kishida and Mr. Yoon were so relaxed that they “reportedly took off their jackets and ties” as they ate and drank.
Underlying the conviviality of the first bilateral summit to be held in Japan in a dozen years was the question of how long the fragile truce between the two countries will last.
Both sides have made good-will gestures. Seoul dropped its demand that Japanese companies compensate Korean victims forced into labor during World War II, a contentious issue for years. Tokyo plans to end its 2019 restrictions on technology exports to South Korea.
But the relationship remains a work in progress. Both leaders will face potential domestic political snags as well as a delicate balancing act in a region where two superpowers, the United States and China, are competing for influence.
“The real issue is how much solidity” there is to the warming ties, said Shihoko Goto, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. “And how much does this actually have legs?”
So far, Mr. Yoon has made the bolder move by offering an alternative to a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court decision ordering Japanese companies that relied on Korean forced labor during World War II to compensate survivors and their families directly. Under Mr. Yoon’s solution, the South Korean government will create a fund to pay the victims instead. President Biden called the announcement “groundbreaking.”
When the deal was announced earlier this month, Japan did little other than reference an earlier government apology for “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea” during Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.
Mr. Yoon has expressed hope that Japanese companies would make voluntary contributions to South Korea’s fund, but so far Japan’s leading business federation has only said it will set up a scholarship fund for student exchanges. South Korea’s main business group will reciprocate.
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The Japanese government has been cautious, analysts say, because it fears that any new deal could unravel, much like a 2015 agreement in which Japan made an apology and promised an $8.3 million payment to provide care for Korean women who had been forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s Imperial Army.
The deal was labeled “final and irrevocable.” But three years later, the South Korean administration of then president Moon Jae-in effectively voided the agreement after a government-appointed panel said the deal had failed to represent the victims’ needs appropriately.
In South Korea, Mr. Yoon’s forced labor solution may be more lasting, as it is not as “explosive” as the issue of the women who served as sex slaves, said Lee Won-deok, an expert on Korea-Japan relations at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Still, public opinion in South Korea has not been favorable toward Mr. Yoon’s proposals, with close to 56 percent of those polled describing the solution as “humiliating diplomacy.”
What’s more, the legal dispute in South Korea is still alive. Some of the victims are trying to persuade a local court to let them confiscate assets held by the Japanese companies in South Korea.
It’s important for “the Japanese businesses to take positive actions to provide the victims a justification” to embrace Mr. Yoon’s solution, said Choi Eunmi, an expert on South Korea-Japan relations at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Even that could be a problem in Japan, said Yoshike Mine, a former Japanese diplomat and researcher at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy in Tokyo. Some companies, he said, might balk at voluntary contributions to the forced labor fund if they are viewed as “payback” for wrongs that Japan says have already been addressed in a much earlier 1965 settlement between the two countries.
If Japanese companies make voluntary donations to the South Korean fund, “certainly that would shift the current narrative, which is that South Korea is pulling all the weight,” said Jiun Bang, assistant professor of political science and Asian studies at Colorado College.
But a South Korean court decision to seize Japanese corporate assets could undermine everything that Mr. Yoon has tried to put in place.
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.
Joining a new cold war between the United States and China is not in either Japan’s or South Korea’s best interests, said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in international policy at Stanford University. “An interesting outgrowth of this rapid reconciliation,” he said, might be for Tokyo and Seoul to come together to “push the U.S. into a more ameliorative stance and find a more nuanced way to deal with China.”
The last time leaders of China, Japan and South Korea met together was in 2019 in Tokyo. Suggesting that such meetings should be revived “is a way to say this is not zero sum and this is not an anti-China development,” said Mireya Solis, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s smart diplomacy to be saying this.”
In a statement, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said that keeping “industrial and supply chains stable and unfettered is in the interest of all three countries and the entire region. China opposes certain countries’ attempts to form exclusionary cliques.”
Ironically, it is anti-Chinese sentiment that could be a binding factor in the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea.
In a recent survey, 81 percent of South Korean respondents expressed negative or very negative sentiments toward China, according to the Sinophone Borderlands project.
“I do think that perhaps anti-Chinese sentiment may cushion the potential backlash against the Japan-South Korea deal,” said Ms. Bang. “It becomes a little easier to stomach, because Japan does pose more of a lucrative country to cooperate with.”