“Yoon Suk-yeol’s Visits to Japan and the United States”
A South Korean Perspective
Analyses of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s foreign policy tend to focus on his government taking a tougher line toward North Korea relative to the engagement-focused approach of the preceding Moon Jae-in administration.1 As the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) makes significant efforts at enhancing deterrence in the face of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development and missile tests, the Kim Jong-un regime has yet to emerge from its pandemic-era isolation and current provocation cycle to accept diplomatic initiatives. Meanwhile, Seoul’s complicated relations with Beijing remain in a holding pattern as the latter moves beyond its zero-Covid policy but prioritizes its rivalry with Washington. This leaves the Yoon administration with comparatively greater agency to make foreign policy adjustments toward Japan. Yoon’s Tokyo gambit is to free up functional cooperation from history issues and domestic politics in order to strengthen South Korea’s position in Asia and reinforce its alliance with the United States.
A Korea-Japan Summit in Tokyo after 12 Years
Despite what many called the nadir in South Korea-Japan affairs during 2018-21, following historically strained ties in 2012-15, three mechanisms provided stability for bilateral relations.2 Limiting the vicious cycle of nationalist recriminations put a floor under interactions. Carefully calibrating policies toward China avoided serious divergence from each other or opening space for Beijing to drive a wedge between the US allies. Also, reassuring Washington about the cost-effectiveness of its alliances involved trilateral cooperation that helped to steady bilateral relations. Over the ups and downs of the diplomatic cycles of different administrations, these factors made it possible to expect an eventual turnaround for Seoul-Tokyo cooperation.
Yoon’s landmark summit with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio thus did not come out of thin air. There was no indication that Tokyo would comply with Korean court rulings on wartime labor, both because of Tokyo’s legalistic approach to history issues and because the Japanese side considered Seoul to have deviated from existing agreements during the Moon administration. But the Yoon administration strategically calculated that returning to the Kim Dae-jung – Obuchi Keizo understanding for bilateral relations was in South Korea’s economic and security interests.3 The need to cope with an increasingly challenged international order called for strengthening Seoul’s alliance with the United States, in part via greater trilateral coordination with Japan.4
The summit derived momentum from the South Korean government’s politically courageous decision to domestically resolve court cases regarding wartime labor.5 The Yoon administration plans to uphold the 1965 diplomatic normalization agreement with Tokyo by compensating Korean plaintiffs via a domestic fund rather than allowing courts to liquidate Japanese corporate assets. South Korean and Japanese business groups also agreed to establish a new future-oriented fund to support scholarships and exchanges.
The Kishida government signaled it would ease semiconductor related export control procedures that Tokyo intensified after the 2018 Korean court rulings, and Seoul opted to discontinue its corresponding World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint so the two sides can put a period of trade uncertainty behind them. With the resumption of South Korea-Japan shuttle diplomacy, bilateral intelligence sharing via a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was also normalized after a decade of starts and stops. The Yoon administration has expressed understanding of Japan’s more robust security posture and increased defense spending.6 Significant too were signs that South Korea would expand coordination with Japan in multilateral endeavors, ranging from the G7 to the Quad to the updated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (CPTPP), to the benefit of supply chain resilience.7 A final takeaway from the Yoon-Kishida summit was the expectation that trilateral defense cooperation with the United States would increase, improving extended deterrence at a time when domestic politics are questioning the reliability of alliance commitments.8
Foreign Policy’s Fate in the Domestic Contest of Ideas
Scholars debate the extent to which opinion polls matter for foreign policy, but in South Korea, public sentiment clearly affects relations with Japan.9 In particular, the role of civil society is key for an ongoing process of reconciliation with Tokyo.10 However, in recent years, Korean NGOs have been actively expanding awareness of historical grievances, pushing court cases to change legal interpretations, and stigmatizing cooperation with Tokyo. While influential with the Korean public, these efforts have not won over Japanese citizens or changed policy in Tokyo but instead complicated bilateral diplomacy.
Furthermore, the opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) appears intent on using criticism of Japan to weaken Yoon and build public support in advance of the 2024 National Assembly elections. The progressive DPK controls the National Assembly and denounced the conservative Yoon government’s rapprochement with Japan as the worst diplomatic humiliation in South Korea’s history.11 DPK lawmakers advanced a resolution calling on the government to withdraw its plan, demanding that Tokyo apologize to wartime laborers, and that Japanese companies pay compensation. Many observers have drawn parallels with the controversial December 2015 agreement in support of “comfort women” survivors that soon came under tremendous political pressure after Park Geun-hye’s presidential term was cut short due to an unrelated corruption scandal.12
However, the current situation is notably different from 2015-16. Yoon faces unfavorable poll numbers but is nowhere near impeachment. Assuming he serves out his term until 2027, Yoon has much more time than Park to show policy progress with Japan and institutionalize cooperation. As nearly all survivors of Japan’s wartime atrocities have passed away, the political redress movement may be losing steam. The “No Japan” public boycott witnessed before the pandemic has faded.13 South Korean opinion is now more positive toward improving bilateral relations despite dissatisfaction at the lack of a better Japanese apology with new and direct payments to historical victims.14
Advocates of the current Korea-Japan understanding are more outspoken than backers of the 2015 agreement, likely because the worsening external environment weighs heavily on strategic thinking in Seoul. With North Korea’s nuclear, missile and asymmetric threats, the assertiveness of Xi Jinping’s China, and global uncertainty amplified by blatant Russian aggression, the South Korean people see the need for cooperation on security and economic resilience. Public views of Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow have significantly hardened since 2015. What is more, partisanship and political polarization in South Korea are now such that Yoon would not gain domestic political benefit from bashing Tokyo. Yoon’s political rival, Lee Jae-myung, who barely lost the presidential election and now leads the DPK in the National Assembly, is seen by many in the public to be using anti-Japan rhetoric to deflect attention from his own legal troubles.15
There is also reason to be optimistic about Korea-Japan rapprochement in light of how Korean national identity is not a priori anti-Japan. South Korea has ever more political, economic, and cultural reasons for national pride as a rising middle power.16 Abe Shinzo had long been vilified in Seoul as the embodiment of Japanese historical revisionism. Kishida suffers from no such image, coming from Hiroshima and the more moderate wing of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Kishida was also foreign minister under Abe when the 2015 deal was reached. Meanwhile, on universal values—a major part of Yoon’s political narrative—Japan is an obvious partner. These values are increasingly relevant after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yoon and Kishida participated in the June 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, and Yoon chaired the economic prosperity session of Biden’s March 2023 Summit for Democracy and volunteered Seoul to host the next summit.17
As for the dimension of national identity concerned with international role, Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative and Moon Jae-in’s regional framework for engaging North Korea met with disappointment. In particular, Park held exaggerated expectations for China, which were dashed by Beijing’s economic coercion against the THAAD missile defense system,18 while Moon held exaggerated expectations for North Korea, which were dashed by Trump’s failed summit with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. In comparison, the Yoon administration has opted to align Indo-Pacific Strategies with Washington and Tokyo and appears to be realistically managing public expectations regarding Japan.19
Civil society could be of great support to reconciliation by pursuing exchanges, alternatives to litigation, and meaningful dialogue. For both governments to make and maintain bilateral agreements, it is essential to consult and involve many groups, and show sensitivity, responsiveness, and public benefits. Meanwhile, Biden hosting Yoon with full honors in Washington could also help prepare domestic politics for the next successful Korea-Japan summit.
Yoon’s Upcoming State Visit to Washington
The Biden administration is supportive of the current rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo, similar to how the Obama administration pushed for the reconciliation agreement in 2015. For the result to be different this time, the US will try to lock in greater cooperation with its key allies in East Asia. Yoon’s state visit to Washington in April 2023 offers an ideal opportunity. ROK-Japan ties still fall well short of their potential, in terms of shaping the incentive structure for North Korea, coordinating more closely with their shared ally on defense of the rules-based order, and deepening trust-based cooperation that can weather uncertainty over a domestic backlash or fears that a new administration will change policy.
Washington can demonstrate how Seoul’s improved relations with Tokyo raise South Korea’s status with the United States. During a state dinner hosted by Biden, Yoon will likely receive praise for reinforcing the 70-year-old alliance, reaching out to Kishida, and taking bold moves for economic security. Yoon’s address to a joint meeting of Congress should be a moment to highlight US-South Korea shared values and interests. Koreans will be watching closely how American media cover the visit and what accomplishments Yoon is able to bring home from Washington.
South Korea has expressed support for the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and Chip4 alliance, but its business leaders are nervous about the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and CHIPS Act.20 Yoon will want to win assurances on Korean concerns regarding Biden’s reshoring polices and export control restrictions against China. Attention to strengthening extended deterrence against North Korea will also show the South Korean domestic audience that Yoon’s Tokyo gambit is paying dividends for both economic and security interests.
To fully realize the Korea-Japan rapprochement, the Yoon and Kishida governments should pick the low-hanging fruit of better relations, avoid unnecessary political slights over history, Fukushima water, or Dokdo/Takeshima, and plant the seeds of future cooperation.21 This will entail implementing shuttle diplomacy with frequent and substantive government meetings, removing barriers to trade, and encouraging post-pandemic restoration of soft power exchanges. Success cannot be assumed, as the Yoon administration’s plan for domestic compensation of wartime labor plaintiffs will need to survive challenges from activists in the streets and in the courts. Greater reciprocity in the process of reconciliation should come from Tokyo as soon as possible, perhaps with Japanese companies voluntarily contributing to the wartime labor fund before Kishida visits South Korea later this year.
Further ROK-Japan cooperation will be possible as the two sides move on from the radar lock controversy and pursue more combined defense exercises with the United States.22 Defense export cooperation can help backfill US and allied arsenals depleted from supporting Ukraine. Seoul and Tokyo can mutually elevate and align policies on North Korean human rights. Under the banner of Indo-Pacific Strategies, US allies can do more to support deterrence of conflicts across the Taiwan Strait, in the South China Sea, and in the East China Sea, without overtly antagonizing Beijing.
South Korea and Japan have shared interests in moderating US policies in ways that increase economic security without counterproductively pursuing unrealistic goals of decoupling from China. Yet many in the Global South tune out issues of international order as if there is moral equivalency between the US and China, and as if Russia’s war in Ukraine is someone else’s problem. So Washington needs Seoul and Tokyo to speak loudly with their credible voices on high standards for trade and economic development.
Beijing may not be fond of Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo’s increasing coordination, but this trilateralism is not anti-China. Rather, it is about defense of a rules-based order and should give Chinese leaders more incentive to embrace restraint, guardrails, and functional cooperation. Finally, as the United States enters its next election campaign season, policymakers in Seoul and Tokyo know that the importance of deepening and institutionalizing US-ROK-Japan coordination should not be underestimated. Trilateral cooperation can serve not only to keep American allies onside, it can also help keep US foreign policy fully committed to common prosperity and security in the Indo-Pacific.
1. Chun, Chaesung, Leif-Eric Easley, Jihwan Hwang, Yang Gyu Kim, and Won Gon Park. 2022. “Policy Recommendations for the Yoon Administration’s North Korea Policy,” East Asia Institute; https://www.globalnk.org/upload/commentary/34f0217f0ce6cd4de2988f80705dfd63.pdf.
2. Easley, Leif-Eric. 2022. “Stabilizing Japan–Korea relations: Restraining nationalism, appraising Beijing, reassuring Washington.” The Pacific Review; https://doi.org/10.1080/09512748.2022.2090594.
3. For the landmark Kim-Obuchi declaration, see Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration: A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century,” October 8, 1998.
4. On the challenged international order, see Richey, Mason and Leif-Eric Easley. 2022. “Russia Attacks and the International Order Strikes Back.” Journal of International Peacekeeping 25(2): 195-203; https://doi.org/10.1163/18754112-25020008.
5. Byun, Duk-kun. “U.S. praises courage of S. Korean President Yoon for mending ties with Japan: Kurt Campbell,” Yonhap, March 31, 2023.
6. On Tokyo’s updated security strategy, see Liff, Adam P. 2023. “Kishida the Accelerator: Japan’s Defense Evolution After Abe.” The Washington Quarterly 46(1): 63-83.
7. Sim, Walter and Chang May Choon. “As Japan and South Korea make amends, the challenge now is to make it last,” The Straits Times, March 18, 2023.
8. Go, Myong-hyun. “North Korean Provocations and the Assurance Challenge for the ROK-US Alliance,” The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, December 28, 2022.
9. For views about the influence of public sentiment on diplomacy, see Kertzer, Joshua D. 2021. “Public Opinion about Foreign Policy.” In the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Third Edition, Eds. Leonie Huddy, David Sears, Jack Levy, and Jennifer Jerit.
10. Easley, Leif-Eric. 2023. “Korean NGOs and Reconciliation with Japan.” Journal of East Asian Studies 23(1): 45-70; https://doi.org/10.1017/jea.2022.21.
11. Lee, Minji. “Main opposition slams Korea-Japan summit as ‘most humiliating’ moment in diplomacy,” Yonhap, March 17, 2023.
12. Regarding the strained 2015 agreement, see Tatsumi, Yuki. “The Japan-South Korea ‘Comfort Women’ Agreement Survives (Barely),” The Diplomat, January 11, 2018.
13. “‘No Japan’ is no more as Koreans ditch the boycott for personal preferences,” Joongang Daily, March 23, 2023.
14. “한일관계 개선 필요 67% 징용해법 긍정 평가 38%,” Maeil Gyeongje Sinmun, March 8, 2023.
15. “이재명, 대일외교도 사법리스크 방탄 방패로 쓰나,” Seoul Kyeongjae, March 19, 2023.
16. Easley, Leif-Eric. 2020. “Shaping South Korea’s Middle-power Future,” East Asia Forum Quarterly 12(1): 35-37; https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n6584/pdf/book.pdf#page=35.
17. The White House. “Joint Statement by President Biden and President Yoon on the Third Summit for Democracy,” March 29, 2023.
18. Kim, J. James. “Alliance First and Mutual Respect: Yoon’s Foreign Policy Approach on China and the United States,” The Asan Forum, December 26, 2022.
19. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea. “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region,” December 28, 2022.
20. Choo, Jaewoo. 2023. South Korea and IPEF: Rationale, Objectives, and the Implications for Partners and Neighbors. Center for Asian Studies, French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
21. “Main opposition urges Japan to suspend Fukushima water discharge,” The Korea Times, April 5, 2023.
22. “South Korea set guideline for using fire control radar on SDF planes in 2019,” The Japan Times, August 19, 2022.