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Japan and South Korea Take Historic Step to Improve Relations and Move Beyond War-Era Disputes

On March 16th, 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol arrived in Tokyo for a historic summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. This visit marks the first bilateral trip to Japan by a South Korean leader in 12 years, and is an important milestone signaling a significant warming of long-strained relations between the two countries.

The summit is aimed at resolving a row over wartime forced labor, and improving security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear and missile programmes.[0] The two leaders discussed bilateral issues such as the exchange of visits, the normalization of intelligence sharing, the resolution of trade disputes, and the cooperation on security challenges such as North Korea.

Yoon and Kishida also addressed the issue of Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II.[1] South Korea had proposed a solution to compensate the laborers through a Korean foundation, to which Japanese firms could contribute if they wanted to, but the three surviving forced laborers have made it clear they want to be compensated by Japan, not South Korea.[0]

The summit came amid a Gallup opinion poll which showed that around 60 percent of South Koreans are opposed to the compensation scheme, and that 57 percent of Japanese support it.[2] Anti-government protests have also erupted, with people decrying the government’s plan as “foolish” and “humiliating.”[3]

Kishida praised Yoon's visit as a significant step in the direction of improving relations, and expressed optimism that it will further foster trust and friendship between the two countries.[4] In his speech at a joint press briefing, Yoon said he was gathering with Kishida to “transform soured South Korea-Japan relations to ones that are future-oriented and prepare a framework for new business cooperation.”[5]

Japan is also going the extra mile to welcome South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, with one of his favorite dishes — “omurice,” or fried rice topped with an omelette.[6]

It appears that Japan and South Korea are coming to terms with the notion that their security in the 21st century is intertwined; they are making a renewed effort to settle their disagreements from the 20th century.[7]

0. “Facing some common threats, Japan and South Korea leaders meet to address them” WEMU, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.wemu.org/2023-03-16/facing-some-common-threats-japan-and-south-korea-leaders-meet-to-address-them

1. “Yoon arrives in Japan for historic talks with Kishida – and beloved omurice” The Guardian, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/16/yoon-arrives-in-japan-for-historic-talks-with-kishida-and-beloved-omurice

2. “Yoon visits Japan, seeking to restore ties amid N Korea threat” Al Jazeera English, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/16/s-koreas-yoon-visits-japan-renew-ties-amid-n-korea-threat

3. “The Japan-South Korea Thaw Is Far From a Done Deal” The Diplomat, 14 Mar. 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/03/the-japan-south-korea-thaw-is-far-from-a-done-deal/

4. “Kishida, Yoon agree to resume ‘shuttle diplomacy' | NHK WORLD-JAPAN News” NHK WORLD, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/news/20230316_41

5. “South Korean president sees new era for business ties with Japan” Nikkei Asia, 17 Mar. 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Japan-South-Korea-rift/South-Korean-president-sees-new-era-for-business-ties-with-Japan

6. “Kishida, Yoon To Eat “Omurice” After Japan-Korea Summit” Bloomberg, 14 Mar. 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-03-14/japan-to-treat-south-korean-leader-to-omelette-rice-report-says

7. “Japan Needs South Korea to Defend Against Kim Jong Un's Missiles” Bloomberg, 15 Mar. 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-03-15/japan-needs-south-korea-to-defend-against-kim-jong-un-s-missiles

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