The Kishida-Yoon Summit Meeting: A New Start for Japan-Korea Relations

President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea will make his first visit to Japan on March 16–17 for a bilateral summit with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Kishida’s invitation to Yoon came shortly after the South Korean government announced its plan earlier this month to resolve a dispute between the two countries over wartime conscripted labor, giving a boost to ongoing efforts by both sides to build a future-oriented relationship and strengthen coordination on regional security challenges.

Q1: Why is the Kishida-Yoon summit meeting important?

A1: The summit meeting indicates an attempted return to normalcy in diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan. Kishida and Yoon met four times last year, including two U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK)-Japan trilateral summits in June and November. But this is the first time in 12 years that the leaders of the two countries will hold an official summit in one of their countries, rather than on the sidelines of other diplomatic events. The visit, which Kishida may reciprocate with a visit to Seoul later in the year, sends a powerful message to both countries that productive bilateral ties are a priority. After a severe downturn in bilateral ties in 2019 over historical sensitivities and other issues, Yoon and Kishida are seeking to establish a durable foundation for the relationship and to expand avenues for cooperation on a range of issues. The summit is an important opportunity to build personal rapport, which could further momentum for bilateral coordination after months of working-level diplomacy between the two governments on the wartime labor issue. The restoration of the bilateral relationship has strategic implications with respect to managing the North Korea threat and other regional challenges bilaterally and together with the United States.

Q2: How will the two leaders address the wartime labor issue?

A2: The two leaders will seek to advance a package of steps intended to resolve and move beyond the wartime labor issue. Yoon will reiterate his government’s plan to provide compensation to the plaintiffs through a public foundation with funds from Korean companies, while keeping the door open for voluntary contribution from Japanese companies. Kishida will offer gestures intended to welcome Yoon’s initiative, while adhering to Japan’s longstanding position that issues related to compensation were resolved by the 1965 normalization treaty. Kishida may reiterate the apology reflected in a 1998 joint declaration issued by then-prime minister Obuchi Keizo and President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea. Japan’s major business federation, the Keidanren, appears likely to join with its South Korean counterpart in establishing a new fund to support young people. In addition, Tokyo and Seoul are moving quickly to resume dialogue on export controls that Japan imposed on semiconductor-related items in 2019. Finally, Kishida appears likely to invite Yoon to participate in the G7, although he may not announce this decision publicly as part of the visit.

The public reactions in Japan and South Korea are polar opposites. A recent poll in Japan showed 57 percent of the public supports Yoon’s plan to resolve this issue, but a recent Gallup Korea public opinion poll showed that 59 percent of the Korean public oppose it, and 64 percent do not consider Yoon’s proposed compensation plan for the plaintiffs via a public foundation in South Korea adequate. While three plaintiffs chose not to accept compensation from that foundation, this alone does not define the agreement’s success or failure.

Q3: Is there potential for bilateral coordination on the North Korea threat?

A3: Another major impetus for improving Japan-Korea relations is the need to coordinate approaches to the security challenges posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. To strengthen bilateral security cooperation, Kishida and Yoon reportedly will seek to normalize the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which provides the scope for classified information-sharing between the two governments, with the Yoon government expected to formally withdraw a notification of intention to withdraw sent to Japan in 2019. Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in attempted to withdraw from the GSOMIA in 2019 after Japan removed South Korea from its preferred trade partner list (the so-called whitelist) and introduced export controls on semiconductor-related items to Seoul, but North Korea’s intensifying provocations (including multiple ballistic missile tests earlier this week) necessitate sustained information-sharing between the two militaries. Solidifying the GSOMIA will also help accelerate trilateral security cooperation with the United States. Since Yoon’s inauguration last year, militaries from the three countries have conducted a series of exercises, including a ballistic missile defense drill last month. Kishida, Yoon, and President Biden agreed to share North Korean missile warning data in real time at a trilateral summit in Phnom Penh last November. And the diplomatic calendar in the coming months—a Yoon-Biden state visit is scheduled in April 26–27, and Kishida could invite Yoon to attend the G7 Summit in Hiroshima from May 19–21—affords opportunities to signal the vitality of the trilateral alliance network.

Q4: What about economic issues and regional cooperation more broadly?

A4: Yoon and Kishida are expected to reaffirm their countries’ shared commitment to the rules-based international order and future cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, especially given that Washington, Japan, and Korea are now more closely aligned in their respective Indo-Pacific visions based on international norms and shared values. Yoon and Kishida may also discuss South Korea’s future contribution to the Quad’s workstreams, such as infrastructure, climate, and emerging technology. The two leaders are likely to reinforce the importance of economic security and supply chain resilience in light of the recent senior level trilateral dialogue on economic security. With respect to bilateral economic issues, the priority will be placed on the resolution of the export control and whitelist issues. Yoon is scheduled to participate in a meeting between the Federation of Korean Industries and the Keidanren during his visit to Japan in an attempt to strengthen the economic partnership between Japan and Korea in areas such as critical technologies and supply chain resilience.

Q5: Can Kishida and Yoon turn the tide?

A5: The summit presents an excellent opportunity to follow up on the historic agreement reached between Seoul and Tokyo this month on forced laborer compensation cases. The war in Europe, China’s assertiveness in Korean and Japanese airspace and territorial waters, and North Korea’s incessant missile testing creates a compelling external environment for the two leaders to find a cooperative path forward. This is an important step toward reaffirming common strategic objectives in Northeast Asia and beyond.

Ellen Kim is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow with the Japan Chair and deputy director for Asia at CSIS. Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at CSIS. Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at CSIS.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair