By Matthew Teasdale
Bringing a welcome thaw to an often frosty relationship, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol discussed new economic and security policies in Seoul in early May 2023. President Yoon’s previous visit to Tokyo in March was the first summit between South Korea and Japan in more than a decade. Strengthening Japanese-Korean relations is a powerful example of how former foes can work together to resolve common security issues diplomatically. North Korea poses a nuclear threat to both countries among other conventional and cyber threats. While debate on historical injustices continues, shared risk offers a needed route for cooperation between the two states.
Recent history between the two countries is marred by reparation disputes over Japan’s subjection of Koreans during the first half of the previous century. Fifty percent of Koreans and Japanese reported a negative opinion of each other in 2019. Despite a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between South Korea and Japan and officially settled colonial disputes, the Korean court system has repeatedly demanded more compensation for victims, including the many “comfort women” who were forced into sex slavery for Japanese soldiers. Japan officially issued an apology in 1993 for the military brothel system, but subsequent Prime Ministers have denied its existence, undermining the sincerity of those statements.
And yet, North Korea’s unprecedented spate of missile tests has provided much needed common ground. Pyongyang launched its most ever missiles in 2022, 99, representing more than a three-fold increase from its previous record in 2017. Some of these have landed in South Korea’s territorial waters and Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone in clear violation of international law. North Korea also has thousands of artillery pieces stationed near the Demilitarized Zone and pointed toward Seoul giving the North a capacity to put civilian populations at risk in any future conflict. Moreover, Pyongyang has engaged in a wide variety of cyber crime including the 2014 Sony Pictures hack and the 2017 WannaCry Ransomware attack. The Kim dynasty has not tested any nuclear weapons since 2017 but their advancing arsenal and capabilities are serious cause for concern.
Compromise and cultural dialogue can bring these two states closer to meaningful cooperation on historic and future quandaries. President Yoon made the domestically controversial move to drop demands for reparations from Japanese companies. During his visit to Seoul, Prime Minister Kishida repaid the gesture and visited the Seoul National Cemetery to express the “strong pain in [his] heart” for the “extreme difficulty and sorrow that many people had to suffer.” Historical memory may be a more abstract feature of international relations than nuclear weapons, but it can be just as powerful. As national symbols, memories help frame and nurture the perceptions and feelings about nations. Eastern European nations engaged in similar acts after the fall of the Soviet Union to avoid repeating conflicts of the 19th century.
Communication and diplomacy between South Korea and Japan are crucial to effectively countering the North Korean threat. Despite historical disputes between the two nations, both countries share the common nuclear, conventional and cyber challenge from Pyongyang. Symbolic acts, like Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to the Seoul cemetery won’t solve decades of cultural trauma, but act as a much needed stepping stone for better dialogue. The early May agreement included confidence-building measures around radioactive waste disposal, reaffirmed a 1998 joint apology for wartime aggression and resumed a previous intelligence-sharing pact. President Yoon even toyed with the idea of Japan joining the ROK-US nuclear planning framework. Though some may only see security through the lens of hard power, cultural dialogue and communication are equally vital for building positive and beneficial peace.