Abe Shinzo was the most well-traveled prime minister in Japanese history. Abe sought to raise Japan’s stature in the world, support a rules-based global order, and cultivate person-to-person diplomacy. Yet, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio may one day be remembered for having achieved some of the biggest foreign policy successes in modern Japanese politics. As foreign minister, Kishida led the negotiations and secured the 2015 Japan-South Korea “comfort women” agreement. The following year, Kishida hosted Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama in his home prefecture of Hiroshima to pay respects to the victims of the atomic bomb at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. And in 2023, Kishida made significant inroads in improving relations with South Korea by securing a forced laborer compensation plan from South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Soon after, Kishida hosted Yoon in Japan for the first summit between the two countries since 2012 and invited Yoon to attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.
The US government, international press, and Washington-based think tanks have praised the diplomatic efforts by the two leaders and believe that the countries would now be better positioned to deal with global security threats, such as a rising China and nuclear North Korea.
However, Japan-South Korea relations have been defined by the collapse of agreements or their failure to quell disputes over history. Reactions to the recent diplomatic breakthroughs have been markedly different. The Korean public and opposition party are highly critical of the Yoon government while many in Japan are taking a wait-and-see approach. On the right, as reflected in Sankei Shimbun, what Yoon has done does not go far enough. Indeed, reports by it that Kishida asked Yoon to go further by faithfully implementing the 2015 agreement and by lifting restrictions on imports of seafood from Fukushima led to the South Korean government expressing regret over distorted reports on the Yoon-Kishida summit.1 Yet, the mainstream conservative newspaper took a different tack. A Yomiuri Shimbun editorial urged Japan to match Yoon’s “wisdom and resolve” and break the cycle of confrontation.2
The focus on Japan is not so much on the Japanese right wing behaving in such a way as to scuttle the deal but on South Korea, as in 2015, not being able to stick to it. Analyses scrutinize public opinion and media responses to Japan. They find much of concern, but they see a ray of hope in improving Korean attitudes toward trilateral security cooperation and intelligence sharing through GSOMIA.3 As for Japan, analysis of public opinion suggests that the power of the right wing in Japan is not so great. A boost in friendly feelings was already visible by the end of 2022 (Japanese responses jumped by 11% from 35 to 46% in one year with the “Korean Wave” in pop culture credited with a 65% figure for 18–29-year-olds and over 50% for women as a whole). Yoon had a positive effect on Japanese thinking even before his January 2023 conciliatory offer.
Yoon is Making Moves and Positive Developments
On March 6, Yoon announced a proposal that settled the forced laborer issue that has plagued relations since 2018. In the terms of the plan, South Korean companies that benefited from funds sent by Japan under the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea would contribute financial resources to a fund that would compensate forced laborers. Although the final terms of the deal are not settled or made public yet, it is assumed that this proposal would override the 2018 South Korea Supreme Court decision that ruled that Japanese companies were liable for the forced mobilization of Korean labor during the waning years of World War II. Moreover, Japanese companies named in the 2018 ruling, such as Nippon Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., are not required to contribute to the fund according to the current terms of the proposal.
Unlike the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, where Japan made significant concessions, such as the Government of Japan contributing one billion yen to a Korean-run foundation to support “comfort women” and issuing another formal apology, the Government of Korea did much of the heavy lifting with the forced laborer plan. Before the announcement, officials from both sides met over several months to settle the issue. The proposal was a significant policy achievement for Yoon as he made improving relations with Japan a top priority from the beginning of his presidency.4 Following the announcement, Yoon defended his decision in a cabinet meeting speech, arguing that he would not exploit “hostile nationalism and anti-Japan sentiment for domestic politics.”5 Yoon lamented that Moon Jae-in left Japan-South Korea relations at a low point and said it was his duty to improve relations with the other major democratic power in the region. The payoff has been immediate at the highest diplomatic levels. The United States was quick to praise the deal, with Ambassador Rahm Emanuel and President Joe Biden commenting on the importance of the cooperation and partnership of its two close allies.
In a sense, Yoon adopted a GRIT (Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-Reduction) strategy where South Korea takes the first move and hopes that positive signaling will create a better negotiating context for other pressing issues, such as the return of South Korea to Japan’s “whitelist” of most-favored trade partners from which it had been left off since August 2019. Given the fallout of the collapsed 2015 agreement that left Japan less willing to engage with South Korea, a more conciliatory approach may have been the only card left he could play.
Kishida was effusive in his praise of Yoon’s efforts, and the countries are moving quickly to remedy other areas of contestation and improve diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation.6
Don’t Cash the Check Just Yet
Despite the positive press coverage of the forced laborer plan, and some positive, tangible results, it is too early to conclude that reconciliation over historical issues has been achieved. Following the “comfort women” agreement, the US government, the international media, the Abe government, and the Park Geun-hye government also expressed optimism and declared a breakthrough in relations, which had been frosty since the Lee Myung-bak years. Within two years of the deal, the South Korean government unilaterally walked away from it, and trust has eroded ever since.
The difficulty with reconciliation is that it must be negotiated at multiple levels, such as between victims and a state, between victims and a company, and between each society. Actors on each level can yield positive sentiment or act as a spoiler if they do not receive what they want. Moreover, actors within one state, such as the victims, the public, and the government rarely share matching win-sets. In other words, there is no reconciliation between “Japan” and “South Korea.” Although there is a plan between the governments, the Japanese public and government elites know that its durability is contingent on Korean public acceptance.
Following the forced laborer plan announcement, sentiment in Japan has been reserved enthusiasm. A Kyodo News poll found 57% of respondents support the forced laborer proposal.7 Yet, the Japanese public and government will remain wary of the finality of the plan because nothing has been signed, South Korea has stepped away from previous agreements, the history issue is routinely brought up over the last few decades, and other areas of dispute remain unresolved. The success of the 2023 forced laborer plan is already on shaky ground.
Early polling data out of Korea has shown overwhelming dissatisfaction with the forced laborer plan, with opposition leaders and media calling it “humiliating” and “degrading.”8 The language of humiliation is a powerful tool that can get a society to dwell on historical trauma long after the initial event negatively.9 Moon Jae-in, for example, vowed not to be “defeated by Japan again,” during the August 2019 trade dispute.10 A greater cause of concern is that the three living forced laborers in the 2018 lawsuit have stated that they do not support the proposal. The Korean public protested the 2015 agreement, moved by the strong indignation of several “comfort women” who did not accept the plan. The fact that over half of the victims or their family members expressed interest in receiving funds from the foundation established in the agreement has had little impact on improving relations between Japan and South Korea.
Moreover, several other history-related issues still need to be addressed, which creates the possibility of backpedaling or negotiation failure. According to some reports, Japan hopes to make progress on the Dokdo/Takeshima Island dispute, which has been one of the biggest obstacles to improving Korea-Japan relations.11 Korean opposition leaders have latched onto the issue as the next talking point to criticize the Yoon government.
Another potential obstacle is the lingering negative sentiment from the 2018 radar locking incident where a South Korean naval destroyer directed its fire-control radar at a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft during a surveillance mission in the Sea of Japan, which the Japan Ministry of Defense considers a step away from actual firing.12 Japanese conservatives, whose voice is amplified by outlets such as the Sankei Shimbun, contend South Korea must apologize for the incident before relations can improve.13 More importantly, even moderates in the Japanese government and Japan-based think tanks found great offense to the incident and believe an apology is still in order.
Lastly, the content of Japanese textbooks remains a sticking point for many in South Korea. Just weeks after the forced laborer plan announcement, South Korea’s foreign ministry lodged a protest with Japan over passages in textbooks that allegedly whitewash Japan’s colonization and make a stronger claim to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands.14 The inability to consistently match actions with rhetoric following agreements has plagued relations for decades. Following past apologies, conservative Japanese leaders would visit the Yasukuni Shrine, downplay past apologies, or question historical facts to the ire of Koreans. Following the 2015 agreement, which was supposed to solve the “comfort women” issue finally and irreversibly, the Park government failed to move the “comfort women” statue. Moreover, the Moon government invited a “comfort woman” to meet President Donald Trump during his state visit to South Korea (while serving shrimp from the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands), clearly violating the spirit of the agreement.15 Each history-related dispute falls under the umbrella of Japan’s colonization of Korea, therefore, coming to terms on one issue does not necessarily indicate that the overall history problem has been addressed. There is much more work to be done.
How Kishida Can Help
Kishida has two main goals in the short term: (1) combat domestic economic and demographic problems and (2) strengthen Japan’s security. Improving relations with South Korea can help address both issues, whether by improving trade relations and cultural exchanges or conducting joint military exercises and enhancing information-sharing agreements. Kishida must balance between achieving additional gains with Korea on issues such as the Fukushima seafood ban and making concessions to provide Yoon cover from domestic criticism.16
Although the Japanese government cannot force private companies to contribute to the forced laborer fund, it can quietly encourage and support companies that volunteer to do so. Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) and the Federation of Korean Industries have already announced that they will contribute 100 million yen each to a “future partnership fund” that will support projects such as decarbonization, youth exchanges, and the declining birthrate.17 Yoon has made it clear that the funds are not compensation for the war conduct. Kishida should not confuse Yoon’s overtures for weakness and press for additional gains, at least not so soon after the forced laborer plan. By allowing Yoon time to make a case to his domestic audience and praising his effort, Kishida can cultivate a better bargaining context for other issues.
Kishida can also follow Abe’s example of controlling opposition voices within his party from publicly criticizing the forced laborer plan. Japanese conservative backlash confirms the suspicion of South Koreans who believe that apologies are not genuine or meaningful. Kishida does not have as strong control over the party as Abe did. Still, the 2023 forced laborer plan has far more favorable terms than the “comfort women” agreement, which should give Kishida some flexibility. Fresh off the successes of his Ukraine trip and summit with Yoon, Kishida’s approval rating rose five points, passing disapproval numbers for the first time in seven months.18 The Nikkei/TV Tokyo survey found that although 68% of respondents did not believe the plan will resolve the wartime labor issue, 63% of respondents supported the Yoon summit, suggesting that Kishida has the public’s backing to continue to improve bilateral relations.
By most accounts, Japan achieved better terms in the forced laborer plan as it did not have to reissue a new apology or pay reparations to victims. Moreover, it gained praise from the US and the international community, restarted economic and security ties with South Korea, and the Yoon government withdrew South Korea’s WTO dispute settlement claim challenging Japan’s export controls. Yet, these gains are fleeting if Yoon cannot survive domestic unrest. The Kishida government has stated that it has inherited previous apologies and will not backtrack. However, a forward-looking engagement with South Korea may entail a renewed apology to signal Japan’s commitment to the plan. Yoon’s foreign policy push has created the opportunity for the US, South Korea, and Japan to follow through on aligned security goals. Yoon is scheduled for a State Visit to the US on April 26 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the US-ROK alliance, which will also likely cover regional and global security threats and strengthening economic ties. Kishida will have no say on the State Visit itself, but it provides opportunities going forward for South Korea and Japan to formulate and execute concrete actions to match the ambitious agenda set in the last two months.
Kishida and Yoon’s fates are now tied. Both are unpopular leaders who needed a significant foreign policy win to draw attention away from scandals and their inability to address demographic and economic issues at home. Washington-based think tanks may be delighted with Japan-South Korea cooperation because the countries can turn their attention to security threats such as China and North Korea, but those issues were concerns in 2015 as well. A rules-based order, values-based relationship, or the Indo-Pacific strategy do not move the public in Japan and South Korea. The publics are sensitive to either apology fatigue or the lack of a genuine apology, and both the Kishida and Yoon government must convince their publics about the necessity of engaging with the other side. If the programming from “future partnership fund” generates positive public sentiment, the bargaining context may be less punitive and thus open pathways to make greater concessions and meet the victims’ demands.
1. “S. Korea expresses regret over “distorted” reports on Yoon-Kishida summit,” Yonhap News Agency, March 20, 2023.
2. Maeki Riichiro, “Japan must respond to Yoon’s wisdom and resolve,” The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 16, 2023, https://japannews.yomiuri.co.jp/world/asia-pacific/20230316-97434/
3. Kohari Susumu, “Ozume to natta goyoko mondai no kaiketsuan to Kankoku no naisei jijo,” Toa, No. 3, 2023, pp. 44-51.
4. Kim Jaewon, “South Korea’s Yoon vows to ‘swiftly’ improve Japan ties,” Nikkei Asia, August 15, 2022, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Japan-South-Korea-rift/South-Korea-s-Yoon-vows-to-swiftly-improve-Japan-ties
5. Nam Hyun-woo, “President Yoon refutes criticism of fence-mending summit with Japan,” The Korea Times, March 21, 2023, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2023/04/113_347537.html
6. Kageyama Yuri, “Japan PM praises SKorea leader; biz groups vow to boost ties,” AP News, March 17, 2013, https://apnews.com/article/korea-japan-business-yoon-keidanren-b7aae049d1cf68d8b444b225b053b004; Takahashi Kosuke, “US, Japan, South Korea conduct joint anti-submarine exercise,” The Diplomat, April 5, 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/04/us-japan-south-korea-conduct-joint-anti-submarine-exercise/
7. “57% of Japanese back S. Korea’s solution to wartime labor row: poll,” Kyodo News, March 13, 2023, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2023/03/fe39437aa2fb-urgent-57-of-japanese-back-s-koreas-solution-to-wartime-labor-row-poll.html
8. Kobara Junnosuke, “Wartime labor proposal opposed by 59% of South Koreans: poll,” Nikkei Asia, March 11, 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Japan-South-Korea-rift/Wartime-labor-proposal-opposed-by-59-of-South-Koreans-poll#:~:text=SEOUL%20%2D%2D%20More%20than%20half,%2C%20with%2035%25%20in%20favor; Park Ju-min, “Forced labour victims protest in wheelchairs, reject S.Korea deal on Japan,” Reuters, March 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/forced-labour-victims-protest-wheelchairs-reject-skorea-deal-japan-2023-03-07/; Gil Yun-hyung, “[News analysis] In raising white flag to Japan, Yoon tramples 30-year fight for Korea’s forced laborers,” Hankyoreh, March 8, 2023, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/1082739.html
9. Mark Tischler, “China’s ‘never again’ mentality,” The Diplomat, August 18, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/chinas-never-again-mentality/
10. Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea leader appeals to Japan as dispute festers,” The New York Times, August 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/15/world/asia/south-korea-japan-trade.html
11. Kim So-youn, “Japan tries its luck on Dokdo after Yoon’s concessions on forced labor,” Hankyoreh, March 30, 2013, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/1085888.html; “Challenges and opportunities for Korea-Japan relations in 2014,” Asan Institute of Policy Studies, February 12, 2014, http://en.asaninst.org/contents/challenges-and-opportunities-for-korea-japan-relations-in-2014/; “The Japan-South Korea joint public opinion poll 2019,” The Genron NPO, June 12, 2019, https://www.genron-npo.net/en/opinion_polls/archives/5489.html
12. Michael Bosack, “Locked on and tuned out: Understanding the Japan-Korea radar incident,” Tokyo Review, December 30, 2018, https://www.tokyoreview.net/2018/12/locked-on-and-tuned-out-how-to-understand-the-radar-incident-between-japan-and-south-korea/; Ministry of Defense, “Regarding incident of an ROK naval vessel directing its fire-control radar at an MSDF patrol aircraft,” https://www.mod.go.jp/en/d_act/radar/index.html
13. Nishioka Tsutomu, “South Korea must come clean on radar lock-on incident to clear the way for better security cooperation,” Japan Forward, March 13, 2023, https://japan-forward.com/south-korea-japan-relations-tsutomu-nishioka-wartime-labor-and-radar-lock-on-incident/
14. “(Lead) S. Korea voices ‘deep regrets’ over Japan’s controversial history textbooks,” Yonhap News Agency, March 28, 2023, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20230328005851325
15. Yeo Jun-suk, “Trump’s hug with comfort woman draws ire from Japan,” The Korea Herald, November 8, 2017, https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171108000842
16. Scott A. Snyder, “Yoon’s unilateral statesmanship will fail without reciprocation from Japan,” Council on ForeignRelations, March 14, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/blog/yoons-unilateral-statesmanship-will-fail-without-reciprocation-japan
17. “Japan’s Keidanren, Korean counterpart each to create fund amid better ties,” The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 17, 2023, https://japannews.yomiuri.co.jp/politics/politics-government/20230317-97938/
18. “Kishida’s approval rating above water for first time in 7 months,” Nikkei Asia, March 27, 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Kishida-s-approval-rating-above-water-for-first-time-in-7-months
“Yoon Suk-yeol’s Visits to Japan and the United States”