South Korean leader’s countries visit Japan for first visit in 12 years amid Chinese and North Korean fears


South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol arrived in Japan on Thursday for a bridge-building summit, the first such visit in 12 years, as the two neighbors seek to counter growing threats from North Korea and rising concerns over China.

These general security concerns came to the fore just hours before the trip, when North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile into the waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, the fourth ICBM launch in less than a year.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno condemned the latest launch, calling it a “reckless act” that “threatens the peace and security of our country, region and international community.”

The summit meeting between Yun and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is an important step towards repairing a damaged relationship after decades of bickering and mistrust that have plagued two important US allies in Asia.

Yun’s office called it a “major milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.

The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of hostility dating back to the Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.

The two normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes continue to smolder, particularly over colonial Japan. the use of forced labor and so-called “comfort women” sex slaves.

In recent years, often tense relations undermined United States efforts present a united front against North Korea—and the growing assertiveness of Beijing.

Now, the two most important US allies in the region seem ready to turn over a new leaf.

This is largely driven by heightened security concerns with Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent missile tests, China’s increasingly assertive military stance, and tensions around the Taiwan Strait, an area Tokyo and Seoul say are vital to their security.

The thaw in relations is welcome news for Washington, which is pushing détente.

“Our joint work not only on the political front, but also on the strategic front, on the containment front, is what North Korea is afraid of. It’s also something China doesn’t want to happen,” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel told CNN on Thursday.

Emanuel said the US, Japan and South Korea have held more than 40 trilateral meetings at various levels over the past year, more than in the previous five years combined.

“This familiarity, this institutionalized dialogue and conversation, building trust has probably been the biggest contribution” to thawing ties, he said.

Before leaving for Tokyo, Yoon told international media on Wednesday that “Korea and Japan increasingly need cooperation during this time of polycrisis,” citing North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats and the disruption of global supply chains.

“We cannot afford to waste time ignoring the tense Korean-Japanese relationship,” Yoon said.

Under Yun Moon’s predecessor Jae-in, South Korea’s relations with Japan were “openly belligerent,” said Joel Atkinson, a professor of Northeast Asian international politics at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“Therefore, this visit is significant as it sends a strong message that under the Yun administration, the two sides are now working much more in concert,” Atkinson said.

South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol arrives at Haneda International Airport with his wife Kim Kon-hee in Tokyo on March 16, 2023.

The thaw in relations comes after South Korea took a major step toward resolving a long-standing dispute that has plunged relations to their lowest point in decades.

South Korea last week announced it would compensate victims of forced labor during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 through a public fund financed by private Korean companies, rather than asking Japanese firms to contribute to the reparations.

The move was welcomed by Japan and welcomed by the White House.

The deal ended a deadlock that ended in 2018 when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation to 15 plaintiffs who sued them for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule.

Japan disagreed with the 2018 South Korean court decision and Tokyo did not pay compensation.

This led to rising tensions between the two sides, with Japan restricting the export of materials used in memory chips and South Korea reneging on its military intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo during Moon’s presidency.

But the Yong administration is keen to improve relations, even if it means resisting internal public pressure on controversial, highly emotional issues such as the compensation plan.

In addition to the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, China appears to have been an important factor in Yun’s willingness to face domestic backlash over the offset deal, Atkinson, a Seoul-based expert, said.

“The administration is proving to the South Korean public that it’s not just about Japan, but about engaging with a broader coalition of liberal democracies,” he said.

“What South Koreans perceive as intimidation, Beijing’s arrogant attitude towards their country, as well as its suppression of protests in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan and so on, definitely set the stage for this.”

Even before the decisive move to resolve the historic dispute, Seoul and Tokyo signaled their willingness to put the past behind them and forge a closer relationship.

On March 1, in a speech commemorating the 104th anniversary of South Korea’s protest movement against Japan’s colonial occupation, Yoon said that Japan has “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner” that “shares the same universal values.”

Since taking office, the two leaders have taken a number of diplomatic steps aimed at forging bilateral relations and deepening joint cooperation with Washington.

In September, Yun and Kishida held the first summit of the two countries since 2019 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, where they agreed to improve relations.

In November, the two leaders met with Biden in Cambodia for a regional summit.

A closer alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea is worrying China, which has accused Washington of campaigning to contain and stifle its development.

But Emanuel argued that it was Beijing’s actions that brought the countries closer.

“If China hadn’t confronted India twice on the border, or the Philippines twice with the coast guard, or fired missiles at Japan (exclusive economic zone), this would not have happened,” he said.

“This is a recent development in response to China’s constant confrontation with others.”

Beijing is particularly concerned about South Korea’s participation in the Quadripartite Security Dialogue, more commonly known as the Quadrilateral, an informal security dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India. She sees the grouping as part of Washington’s attempt to surround the country with strategic and military allies.

Last week, a senior South Korean official said that Seoul plans to “actively accelerate” its participation in the Quad task force.