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Hitting Reset on Japan-South Korea Relations

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Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

Hitting Reset on Japan-South Korea Relations

With relatively new governments and a pressing threat from North Korea, the timing to renew Seoul and Tokyo ties is better now than it has been in years.

Hitting Reset on Japan-South Korea Relations
Credit: Depositphotos

Meetings between the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers and their diplomatic envoys are signaling an improvement in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which have sunk to historic lows in recent years. The shifting geopolitical landscape provides the two governments with a window of opportunity to thaw the ice as the region deals with an increasingly aggressive China in the maritime space, and an increasingly provocative North Korea. In order to adequately address the challenges facing the region, Japan and South Korea must repair a relationship marred by historical issues while building sustainable security policies in areas of mutual interest.

With North Korea’s recent flurry of missile tests, the potential for a future nuclear test, and relatively new leadership in both Japan and South Korea, the timing to renew Seoul and Tokyo ties is better now than it has been in years. New South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has already expressed a willingness to repair ties with Japan and strengthen their trilateral relationship with the United States. In Japan, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio secured a three-year mandate for his administration following a decisive electoral victory for his party, giving him time to pursue his own foreign policy agenda.

Tokyo and Seoul should leverage the acute security threat posed by North Korea to implement incremental policies that institutionalize existing frameworks for security cooperation. These steps can protect areas of mutual security interest from potential political fallout while the two governments pursue separate dialogues to resolve the historical issues that have soured the relationship in the past.

Despite diplomatic hostilities, there are cooperative frameworks that can be improved, expanded, or revived. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), intended to enhance intelligence sharing between Tokyo and Seoul, was severely underused and nearly suspended by the Moon administration in 2019 as part of the string of events that contributed to the current deterioration of relations. As an early step in building security cooperation, Seoul and Tokyo should normalize the use of GSOMIA to make regular information exchange on North Korea an indispensable tool for both countries. Japan’s inaccurate reporting on the number of ballistic missiles launched by North Korea in June demonstrates that intelligence sharing is severely lacking and is an obvious vulnerability in the trilateral framework. Normalizing the use of a mutually beneficial initiative prevents this security arrangement from once again becoming a political pawn in diplomatic disputes.

Beyond institutionalizing existing mechanisms, the North Korea threat also gives an opportunity to revive initiatives that were previously abandoned due to political differences. Both Seoul and Tokyo have signed Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements (ACSA) with Washington, but they have yet to negotiate an ACSA with each other. Given the ongoing threat to the stability of the Korean Peninsula, a logistics agreement between the two geographically close countries should be approached as a pragmatic policy choice that, like GSOMIA, benefits both governments. Establishing frameworks like GSOMIA and an ACSA could prove that Japan and South Korea can cooperate in certain areas separately from discussions on historical disputes, and allow further security cooperation to develop concurrently with, but independently of, their primary issues of disagreement.

There are still future factors that can change the trajectory going forward. The South Korean government recently announced a public-private initiative to explore solutions to the contentious issue of Japanese wartime forced labor. The initiative aims to resolve the issue before the South Korean courts issue a follow-up ruling to the 2018 wartime labor case, which predicated the current deterioration of relations.

In Japan, the loss of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo leaves the conservative wing of the Liberal Democratic Party without a unifying leader, potentially complicating efforts by Kishida, a party moderate, to pursue a South Korea agenda. Abe’s support could once reliably quell conservative dissent, but in his absence Kishida will have to contend with many voices of opposition should the conservatives take issue with any of his South Korea policies.

Looking at the broader picture of regional security, China’s continued expansion of its nuclear arsenal casts doubt on the security guarantees of the U.S. policy of extended deterrence. Japan and South Korea may find a more robust bilateral security relationship to be a reasonable alternative to a leaky nuclear umbrella. Thus, as political and security tides are very much in flux, the two governments should take advantage of North Korea’s obvious provocations to institutionalize and strengthen cooperative mechanisms as a pragmatic choice while the opportunity is still available, creating security policies that will withstand negative shifts.

In order to improve their security outlook while diplomatic relations remain icy, the two governments must approach their policies carefully, with incremental steps where mutual self-interest can trump disagreement. North Korea is presenting itself as that common interest, and both countries would be wise to take advantage of this moment to reset their relationship.