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South Korea’s First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Cho Hyun-dong, left, Japanese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Takeo Mori and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman prior to their trilateral meeting in Tokyo. Photo: EPA-EFE

Will Japan-South Korea talks yield improved ties as North’s provocations drive them closer?

  • The nations should be ‘natural allies’ with their shared challenges in Northeast Asia, and potential mutual benefits in trade, cultural and education, analysts say
  • But historical issues hold back the relationship, such as recognition of wartime comfort women and forced labour in Japanese corporations 1910-1945

Talks between senior Japanese and South Korean foreign ministry officials in Tokyo are a positive indication that the frequently rocky bilateral relationship is improving, say analysts, although they point out that significant hurdles still need to be overcome.

Given that the two nations should be “natural allies” as they face a number of shared challenges in Northeast Asia, the experts add that Tokyo and Seoul should be making every effort to rebuild a relationship that can also be mutually beneficial in trade, cultural and educational exchanges and other areas.

By far the most important area in which cooperation would be mutually beneficial is regional security, with the United States also very keen to see its two key Asian allies working more closely together.
South Korea’s first vice-foreign minister Cho Hyun-dong was in Tokyo for three-way talks with Japanese vice-foreign minister Takeo Mori and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. North Korea was due to be top of the agenda, with Pyongyang expected to carry out another underground nuclear test in the coming days and increasingly frequent provocations aimed at the South.
The situation in Ukraine and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s third term are also likely to be discussed.

China envoy blasts US for dividing Seoul and Beijing, defends Hu’s congress exit

It is the subsequent talks between Japanese and South Korean diplomats that are arguably the most critical element of the meetings, and are being closely watched for whether progress is being made in rebuilding the relationship.

Arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Cho told reporters it is possible a summit could be arranged between President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of a series of international summits in November.

Cho added that he hoped to discuss historical issues that have proved to be a thorn in the side of the relationship in recent years, including recognition of wartime comfort women and forced labourers put to work for Japanese corporations during the 1910-1945 colonial era.

Japan considers the question of compensation for forced labourers to have been settled under the 1965 agreement that saw Tokyo pay redress, although a series of Korean courts have recently sided with former workers demanding direct redress. The assets of two Japanese firms in Korea have already been seized and are due to be liquidated to provide compensation.

US calls nuclear talk in Seoul ‘irresponsible’ amid growing North Korea threat

Despite the disagreements that remain, analysts suggest the outlook is more optimistic than it has been for some time.

“There seems to be more political will on both sides at the moment, but particularly on the South Korean side,” said Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

“My sense is that there is a growing realisation of the uncertainty and instability in the world at the moment, including surrounding North Korea, and that there is a commensurate need for cooperation on security issues,” he said.

“Clearly there is a lot of anger in parts of South Korean society about historical issues, and perhaps Japan has not done enough to ease that anger, but those are historical issues and both countries now have far more acute and immediate problems that need to be dealt with,” he said.


Japan issues rare alert urging people to seek shelter as North Korean missile flies overhead

Japan issues rare alert urging people to seek shelter as North Korean missile flies overhead

Pinkston said there was a “good deal of irony” in the fact that long-standing efforts to divide South Korea, Japan and the US had backfired to the point that Pyongyang’s provocations were now bringing the three nations closer together.

“But this is still likely to be an incremental process,” he said. “I do not expect to see a sweeping announcement that all disagreements have been completely fixed.”

Domestic political considerations on both sides make that extremely unlikely, Pinkston added, with the most optimistic outcome an agreement on shared security concerns that can then spread to positive trade and cultural exchanges.

Why does a South Korean fringe group agree with Japan on WWII ‘comfort women’?

Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, agreed that the short-term priority for both nations had to be regional security.

“Until recently, the administration of Moon Jae-in raised over and over again historical issues between Korea and Japan, which only served to damage the relationship,” he said. “President Yoon has been far more restrained because he clearly sees that North Korea is the real threat to his nation, not Japan.

“The two nations are natural allies against the authoritarian regimes that exist in the region and I am certain the Japanese government will support South Korea on security issues involving North Korea,” he said.