Japan and South Korea Turn the Page

Last night Seoul and Tokyo announced the de facto resolution of their dispute over wartime conscripted labor—a major achievement that signals the arrival of a durable and much closer partnership between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington.

In recent months, some of the most capable diplomats in South Korea and Japan have been engaged in quiet negotiations to resolve the dispute. Although Japan considers the labor issue settled by the 1965 treaty of normalization, South Korea’s Supreme Court brought it back to life in 2018 by ordering two Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean laborers and their heirs. After the inauguration last year of South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol—who has emphasized the importance of strong ties with Japan—back-channel talks in search of a resolution intensified and reached their fruition with the announcement last night.

At first blush, the significance was easy to miss. In a highly choreographed set of actions, Korean foreign minister Park Jin announced a government plan to compensate 15 victims, who won lawsuits against the two Japanese companies, through a public foundation in South Korea. In turn, Japanese foreign minister Hayashi Yoshimasa welcomed the announcement, and affirmed that the Kishida government upholds the 1998 Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration, in which then Prime Minister Obuchi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the period of colonial rule. The Japanese trade ministry separately announced plans for talks with Seoul on export controls that Japan imposed in 2019 on semiconductor-related products—actions that Japan took after the Supreme Court ruling, but insisted were unrelated to the forced labor issue; South Korea said it would drop the case that it brought to the World Trade Organization.

And there is more is to come. The chairman of Japan’s largest business federation, the Keidanren, issued a statement on the same day welcoming the announcement—signaling that Japanese companies likely will contribute to the foundation, a key demand from the South Korean side. President Yoon will visit Tokyo in the coming days, at which point Prime Minister Kishida will likely affirm the Obuchi apology and invite Yoon as a guest to the G7 Summit in Hiroshima.

Skeptics rightly note that we have seen this movie before. Past “breakthroughs” in Japan-South Korean relations all too often have proven fleeting, with agreements unraveling after new leaders take power in Tokyo or Seoul. But unlike previous deals—such as the 2015 comfort women agreement, which Republic of Korea (ROK) president Moon Jae-in repudiated immediately upon taking office—this one is likely to endure beyond current leaders.

Why be optimistic this time? First, both leaders recognize the strategic imperative of closer ties and took political risk to get this done. The war in Europe, China’s military assertiveness in the region, and North Korea’s unending ballistic missile tests have created security deficits for both countries that require heightened cooperation. Yoon has repeatedly called for both countries to move beyond the past and to focus on common ground. In a remarkable speech on March 1—marking the 104th anniversary of the Korean independence movement against colonial Japan—Yoon said that Japan has “transformed from a militaristic aggressor into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.” The speech built on similar language he used last August on the anniversary of Korea’s liberation. Japan’s response to these overtures has been publicly tepid—the government spokesperson last week said only that “South Korea is an important partner for Japan”—but privately Kishida encouraged the diplomatic efforts to find a solution.

And in the meantime both leaders have supported an increasingly ambitious policy agenda. After virtually no activity during the Moon administration, trilateral military exercises with the United States have resumed, including a ballistic missile defense drill last month conducted after North Korea’s latest launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. There is a near-constant pace of trilateral policy meetings, and in November, leaders of the three countries issued a Joint Statement outlining a shared vision: Partnership for the Indo-Pacific. Late last month, senior national security officials from the three countries held their first-ever dialogue on economic security to promote collaboration on critical technologies—a clear statement that shared interests extend beyond dealing with the North Korean threat.

A second reason for optimism is that Tokyo and Seoul own this agreement, which was driven by the parties themselves and not by Washington—indeed, at various times in recent months, U.S. officials were asked to stay out. Although the Biden administration made clear at the highest levels its desire to see reconciliation—and was critical in creating the political context for a deal through a regular drumbeat of trilateral engagements—it played no direct role in the talks. The absence of a U.S. role in brokering the agreement will help to shield it from domestic criticism in both countries, and will give each side accountability in its success.

The third reason for optimism is timing. Both Kishida and Yoon are early in their respective tenures as leaders. Yoon was inaugurated in May 2022, and will be in office until 2027. The new agreement has almost four years to take root before the next South Korean presidential election—in contrast to the 2015 deal, which was concluded close to the end of former President Park’s term. The same appears true in Japan—after months of decline, Kishida’s approval ratings have begun to improve; he faces no obvious challenger and has no requirement to call an election for more than two years.  

This is not to say that ROK-Japan relations have only sunny days ahead. The agreement has elements that could become sources of friction later. Although the private fund created to compensate laborers will be supported through purely “voluntary” contributions, the political viability of the agreement will hinge on at least some participation from Japanese companies. Though the signs are good, follow-through will be key.

With this agreement in place, the United States, Japan, and South Korea should further accelerate their trilateral agenda. Although much work is already underway, there is much to be done. Doing so would send a powerful message to North Korea, China, and Russia that the regional network of like-minded alliances and partnerships is tightening.

In the defense relationship, the three countries should expand and institutionalize trilateral military exercises. They should deepen information sharing, including by establishing liaison officers at Combined Forces Command in Seoul and at the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo. And they should create a new venue for trilateral policy discussion of issues related to extended deterrence, including nuclear planning, by bringing together the separate bilateral mechanisms that exist today. Finally, as defense cooperation deepens, the three governments should discuss how they could cooperate during a contingency in the Taiwan strait.

On the diplomatic front, Japan and the United States should seek to involve the ROK more fully into regional efforts to support the rules-based international order.  In particular, the ROK should be invited to join discrete elements of the Quad’s workstreams, such as infrastructure, climate, and emerging technology. 

There is a Japanese proverb, “after the rain, the ground hardens”—a relationship emerges from difficulty even stronger. The agreement this week will solidify the ground under relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The benefits will accrue not just to the two protagonists, but also to the United States.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at CSIS.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair