South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol plans an official visit to Japan to turn the page on feuds dating back to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula and to establish “forward-looking relations” with Tokyo in the light of North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear and missile programs.
Yoon’s two-day trip, which begins Thursday, is the first visit by a South Korean leader to Japan in 12 years.
It comes days after the government of Yoon Japan made concessions to South Korean court decisions that ordered two Japanese companies to pay reparations to 15 people forced to work in their factories during World War II.
All eyes will be on any reciprocal steps Japanese Prime Minister Fumiko Kishida might take, as the Yoon government’s concessions – proposing payouts from a South Korean sovereign fund rather than the Japanese companies – have immediately sparked protests from the three surviving victims, their supporters and the country’s opposition.
As Yoon begins his visit, here’s what you need to know about the feuds between South Korea and Japan and Seoul’s attempts to mend ties.
What are the historical feuds?
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have been tense since South Korea’s forced labor rulings in 2018.
The Japanese government has rejected South Korea’s Supreme Court orders, arguing that all claims related to the 1910-1945 colonial era — when hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced into forced labor and prostitution in military brothels — were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries. Under that agreement, Japan provided the then military-backed government of South Korea with $800 million in grants and loans, declaring that all issues regarding the property, rights and interests of the two countries and their peoples were considered to be “entirely and finally resolved”. .
But the pact had sparked nationwide protests in South Korea, with protesters decrying the deal as humiliating.
Grievances continued to plague and in the early 1990s South Korean victims of forced labor began seeking redress in courts, while survivors of the military brothels – known as “comfort women” – came out with stories of their abuse.
Amid renewed public outcry in South Korea, Japan apologized for its “colonial aggression”, with former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi saying in 1998 that he “humbly accepted the historical fact that Japanese colonial rule inflicted unbearable damage and pain on the Korean people, and expressed contrite remorse and sincere apology for the ordeal”.
Japan also set up a fund in 2015 to compensate women.
But many in South Korea didn’t see Japan’s remorse as sincere enough, especially since ultra-nationalist former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated last year, and his allies tried to whitewash Japan’s colonial abuses, even suggesting that there was no evidence was to indicate that the Japanese authorities forced Korean women into sexual slavery.
Tensions came to a head in 2018, with Supreme Court rulings on forced labor and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s decision to dismantle the “comfort women” fund.
In retaliation, Japan imposed export controls on chemicals critical to South Korea’s semiconductor industry.
South Korea, for its part, downgraded Japan’s trading status and even threatened to end an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo before pulling out under pressure from the United States.
What is South Korea’s solution?
The hope of a thaw came when Yoon, a conservative, narrowly won the 2022 election.
Since taking office, Yoon has doggedly tried to rebuild ties with Japan, recently describing Tokyo as a “partner who shares universal values with us”. He has also said that trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the US has become “more important than ever to overcome North Korea’s serious nuclear threats”.
Pyongyang, which has rejected US efforts to resume stalled denuclearization talks, fired a record number of ballistic missiles last year and is reportedly preparing for its seventh nuclear test. It has continued its banned missile tests, firing what South Korea says was an intercontinental ballistic missile just hours before the Yoon-Kishida summit, in its third show of effect this week.
Yoon’s government – which praised the need to cooperate with Japan on North Korea issues – began treating victims of forced labor shortly after taking office. And earlier this month, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin unveiled a plan to provide reparations to the victims and their families through a state-backed foundation, with the money likely to come from domestic companies that benefited from the normalization efforts. agreement of 1965. The plan does not require the Japanese companies involved in the forced labor disputes – Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – to contribute.
Choi Eunmi, an analyst at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the solution was “not perfect, but realistic given the realization of the plaintiff’s legal rights.”
“It can be seen as opening the door to improving bilateral relations,” she told Al Jazeera.
Yoon said the proposal is a result of the government’s efforts to “respect victims’ positions while seeking ways that align with the common interests and future development of both South Korea and Japan.”
The Kishida government said it welcomed the South Korean plan and stood by previous official statements expressing regret over Japan’s war aggression in Asia. It said it will also allow Japanese companies to make voluntary donations to the South Korean foundation.
US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, called Yoon’s proposal a “pioneering new chapter of cooperation and partnership among the US’s closest allies”.
Soon after, South Korea and Japan announced talks to restore trade ties, and South Korea’s Ministry of Industry also said it would suspend a case it had filed with the World Trade Organization over Japan’s export restrictions. South Korea’s defense ministry also said it would work with Japan to improve security cooperation, including trilateral relations with the US.
But the plan has met fierce opposition from former forced laborers, who continue to demand direct payments and an apology from Japan. Opposition politicians, meanwhile, have denounced it as “subservient diplomacy”.
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, has called on Yoon’s government to withdraw the plan, calling it “the greatest humiliation and blemish in diplomatic history”. The opposition leader’s comments have raised concerns about a reversal of South Korea’s stance if the Democratic Party returns to power.
A Gallup poll earlier this week also found that nearly 60 percent of South Koreans oppose Yoon’s proposal because it does not require new apologies and reparations from Japan. The poll also found that 85 percent of South Koreans believed that the current Japanese government had no regrets about its colonial rule.
What is expected at the Yoon-Kishida Summit?
Amid tensions, Yoon’s visit is “an important milestone” aimed at normalizing bilateral relations with Japan, his office said.
It said Yoon also hoped to expand various security, economic and cultural areas and revive exchanges between people in the two countries “to overcome the unfortunate history of the past and move forward into the future”.
Yoon and Kishida are expected to hold summit talks on Thursday, followed by dinner. According to Japanese media, Kishida is expected to take Yoon to restaurants in Tokyo’s Ginza district to eat “omurice,” or fried rice with an omelette, one of the South Korean president’s favorite dishes.
Yoon’s visit is the first bilateral trip by a South Korean leader to Japan since former President Lee Myung-bak visited Tokyo in December 2011.
Analysts applauded the trip, but doubted a lasting rapprochement.
“Yoon comes to seal recently struck wartime forced labor deal with Kishida, an accord driven by security concerns and Washington’s desire to have its allies work together on current threats rather than dwell on shared history” said Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University in Japan
“But there is little support for the deal in either country, so the differences are unlikely to be covered up for long, again increasing the likelihood of disappointment and sowing seeds of mutual recrimination,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Like the 2015 comfort women agreement, the forced labor agreement is failing to gain traction as it diplomatically tries to sidestep the lingering trauma of grave human rights violations and offers no grand gesture of remorse or reconciliation.”
What are the consequences for the region?
Improved ties between South Korea and Japan could pave the way for the two neighbours, both US allies, to work more closely together over shared concerns regarding North Korea and China.
“This visit is very important in the sense that the visit and the summit with the Japanese Prime Minister will act as a catalyst to break the stalemate between two countries that need to work together for several reasons: to strengthen defense and deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. , to protect and promote the rules-based international order, especially in the Indo-Pacific region, and to strengthen economic security,” said Jaechun Kim, a professor of international relations at Sogang University in South Korea.
But much will depend on Kishida’s moves, Kim said.
“Yoon’s solution to wartime forced casualty compensation is a glass half full, as Park Jin, Korea’s foreign minister, has said…because Japan needs to reciprocate South Korea’s gesture of goodwill,” said Kim to Al Jazeera.
Kishida’s plans are not yet clear, but Japanese media said in recent days that the prime minister was considering a reciprocal visit to South Korea after hosting a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May “in an effort to accelerate bilateral tires to get back on track.”