Ties between Japan and South Korea have sunk to historic lows in recent years. Although Japan’s colonial legacy and its behavior during World War II have long been a source of tension, relations began deteriorating markedly in 2018. That year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in closed a foundation established in 2015 to support the victims of Japanese wartime sexual slavery, and the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean plaintiffs who were subjected to forced labor during the war. The Japanese government, for its part, protested Moon’s decision and rejected the court ruling as inconsistent with the two countries’ 1965 normalization treaty.

Trade disputes soon followed. In 2019, Japan restricted the exports of three chemicals used by South Korean companies to produce semiconductors and subsequently removed South Korea from its whitelist of trusted countries for trade in sensitive materials. Tokyo cited security concerns when it announced these moves, but Seoul argued that the decisions constituted economic retaliation against South Korea. Relations have remained chilly ever since, with limited bilateral cooperation and periodic diplomatic flare-ups.

This rancorous situation seems poised to change, however, after nearly four years of friction. Both countries face intensifying threats from China and North Korea and are increasingly alarmed by the wider implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With a new South Korean government now in office, both sides have an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Still, although conditions are ripe for Japan and South Korea to finally move past their current stalemate, rapprochement will not be easy.

RIPE FOR A RESET

Despite their fractious history, Japan and South Korea are natural partners in many ways. Both share democratic values, deep economic ties, and close alliances with the United States. And both harbor growing concerns about China. Negative public sentiment toward Beijing is at an all-time high—in part because both states have faced off against Chinese economic coercion. Beijing targeted Tokyo in the aftermath of a 2010 incident near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), and it did the same to Seoul after South Korea’s 2016 decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. In both cases, China lashed out with export bans, product boycotts, and import and tourism restrictions. The subsequent economic fallout underscored the risk of relying too heavily on Beijing. Since then, Seoul and Tokyo have worked to diversify their economies, with both paying increased attention to areas such as critical and emerging technologies. Economic security is now at the top of their agendas.

Japan and South Korea also share similar security concerns. Neither state wants an Indo-Pacific under Chinese hegemony, and both governments are watching Beijing’s military modernization efforts and increasingly assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas with concern. For Japan, in particular, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also exacerbated long-standing fears about potential Chinese military action in the region. According to one poll, 77 percent of Japanese respondents feared that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempted land grab could encourage a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

A common assessment of a problem does not mean agreement on a solution.

The war in Ukraine has also indirectly magnified Japan and South Korea’s shared concerns about North Korea. Since the Russian invasion, North Korea has conducted a barrage of missile tests, including short-range hypersonic missiles and an intermediate-range ballistic missile, and its first intercontinental ballistic missile test since 2017. Moscow’s attack on a country that gave up its nuclear weapons will only intensify Pyongyang’s belief in the necessity of these weapons to deter potential aggression, fueling the North’s commitment to expanding its atomic arsenal. Although much of the world may be distracted from the Korean Peninsula at the moment, leaders in Japan and South Korea are following these developments closely.

Under these circumstances, a new government in Seoul represents an opportunity for both sides to begin improving relations. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has sent strong signals that he wants to make this happen. Yoon and those in his inner circle have said they are open to working with Japan on economic security, expanding trilateral security coordination with Japan and the United States, and participating in working groups of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad—a coalition composed of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. During a March 11 phone call, Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to work together to strengthen ties and coordinate on North Korea. They agreed to hold a face-to-face meeting soon. A South Korean delegation also met with Kishida on April 26 to discuss bilateral issues and deliver a personal letter from Yoon. Kishida told the group that cooperation between the two countries is needed now more than ever.

NECESSARY BUT NOT SUFFICIENT

Such shifts are important, but they aren’t enough to build significantly stronger ties on their own. Although both sides have a long history of shared security concerns, a common assessment of a problem does not mean agreement on a solution. Seoul and Tokyo both worry about China’s military buildup and its economic bullying of its neighbors, for instance, but their responses and willingness to tolerate Chinese ire often differ. And on North Korea, both countries fear threats from missiles and nuclear weapons, but past negotiations revealed differences in their priorities and desired outcomes. Tokyo, for instance, has long prioritized the return of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s, whereas North-South reunification remains an important issue in Seoul.

The Yoon administration is likely to narrow some of these policy gaps, and its openness to working with Tokyo is vital. But many in Japan still remember the high hopes that were dashed by the previous attempt at reconciliation. In 2015, then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then South Korean President Park Geun-hye struck a deal to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the fraught legacy of comfort women—Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. Under the deal, Japan contributed one billion yen to the victim-support foundation that the Moon administration later closed in 2018. The agreement, however, was unpopular from the moment both governments announced it, and it unraveled after Park’s impeachment in 2017 on corruption charges. Japanese leaders are not eager to repeat that experience, and some still feel the effects of so-called Korea fatigue—a sense that South Korean leaders too often dredge up the past for political gain. Many in Tokyo welcome the Yoon administration’s positive approach, but there is also a strong sense that future agreements must involve credible commitments if they are to stand the test of time.

These problems have no easy solutions. They will continue to entangle Japanese and South Korean domestic politics and foreign policy. Although South Korea sees Japan as insufficiently apologetic for its past abuses, Japan is increasingly frustrated by demands for contrition and reparations that it feels are impossible to satisfy. For now, Tokyo and Seoul may be able to shelve historical disagreements to facilitate cooperation in other areas, but these issues are likely to come back to haunt the two countries if they remain unaddressed.

BETTER DAYS?

Despite these serious challenges, Seoul and Tokyo must seize this opportunity to improve relations. Greater cooperation with the United States and regional partners may be the most promising place to start. U.S. President Joe Biden’s May visits to Tokyo and Seoul provide an opportunity for Washington to help this process along. Biden is no stranger to the issue. As vice president, he rejected advice from his senior advisers and personally intervened in 2013 to begin laying the groundwork for a 2015 meeting between Abe and Park that was intended to repair bilateral ties. Beyond organizing a similar meeting between Kishida and Yoon, Biden should seek to convene a trilateral summit that would focus on areas of cooperation, including ways to address threats from China and North Korea. Japanese and South Korean leaders could also use their involvement in broader arrangements, such as the forthcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and selective engagement with Quad working groups, to bolster cooperation.

Bilateral cooperation is likely to proceed more slowly, but shared concerns are a good place to begin. Both Japan and South Korea are working to reduce their dependence on China and bolster their economic security. As part of those efforts, they could promote cooperation on supply chain resilience, critical and emerging technologies, and post-pandemic economic revitalization while also coordinating to counter potential Chinese economic coercion. Recently concluded agreements with the United States and other countries on similar topics could act as useful templates. Both countries will also benefit from collaboration on a wide range of other issues such as pandemic preparedness, climate change, digital governance, infrastructure investment, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security, cybersecurity, and outer space.

At home, Seoul and Tokyo should also begin building broad coalitions that support improving bilateral ties, including legislators, civil society organizations, and the general public. If rank-and-file politicians and citizens believe that the Japanese-Korean relationship is valuable, it will be easier for leaders to weather future trials and tribulations. Both sides have a lot of work to do, and negative sentiment remains prevalent. According to a 2021 poll, 63 percent of South Koreans had an unfavorable impression of Japan, while 49 percent of Japanese felt similarly about South Korea. The proportion of people in Japan who believe that relations with Korea are important has dropped from a peak of 74 percent in 2013 to 46 percent in 2021.

Japan and South Korea have much to gain from resetting their relationship.

But there are also reasons for hope. A majority of people in both countries feel that bilateral conflicts should be overcome or at least avoided. Although South Koreans tend to feel more negatively toward Japan than vice versa, 79 percent still believe that relations with Tokyo are important. Recent shifts may also make it easier for leaders to argue that the two countries share common interests. South Korean sentiment toward Japan has improved modestly over the last year, just as attitudes toward China have grown increasingly negative. As the pandemic recedes, the resumption of tourism and cultural exchanges may also play a role in warming relations. With these trends as a starting point, progress is possible if both sides make sincere efforts to engage civil society and communicate effectively. It will be difficult, but the two countries can find ways to repair damaged trust.

Finally, both governments need to make incremental progress toward resolving their trade disputes and historical disagreements. This process must be slow and deliberate, with all sides making compromises where possible and striving to maintain their credibility. Any new agreements on historical issues must also involve key stakeholders outside the government, such as wartime victims and civil society groups. Without broad-based support, any future deal will likely collapse—just like the 2015 comfort women agreement. Still, these issues need not hold the overall bilateral relationship hostage.

Both Japan and South Korea have much to gain from resetting their relationship. Together, Seoul and Tokyo can defend their shared interests far more effectively than either could alone—combining their respective strengths to address security, economic, health, climate, and other challenges. By doing so, they will generate benefits for themselves and for the broader regional and international community. Although the route ahead is bumpy, the destination will be well worth the journey.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • KRISTI GOVELLA is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
  • BONNIE GLASER is Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
  • More By Bonnie S. Glaser