South Korea and Japan: A historic meeting of foes

Leaders from South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo, marking a watershed moment in their tense relationship. It comes as North Korea launches its fourth round of missiles in a week, highlighting why security is being prioritized over past disputes.

The leaders agreed to resume regular visits and reached an agreement to settle a long-running trade dispute. Japan agreed to lift export restrictions on semiconductor materials, while South Korea withdrew its World Trade Organization complaint (WTO).

BBC correspondents examine the significance of the countries’ first meeting since 2011.

Seoul made the first move, but more is expected.
Jean Mackenzie is based in Seoul.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol staged a coup to secure this summit.

This is the first time in 12 years that a South Korean leader has been invited to Tokyo for such a meeting.

The difficult history of these neighbors has plagued their relationship for decades. Japan colonized South Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to work in Japanese mines and factories. Women were forced into sexual servitude.

While the scars are no longer visible, they are not forgotten or forgiven here.

However, President Yoon dropped his demand that Japan compensate some of the victims of its slavery last week. Instead, he agreed that South Korea would raise the funds. In doing so, he sought to set aside the past for the sake of Northeast Asia’s security.

The deal was dubbed the “biggest humiliation in our history” by the opposition leader. But it secured President Yoon’s trip to Tokyo. Diplomats are both surprised and impressed. They regard it as a bold and astute move, particularly for a political newcomer with no foreign policy experience. Mr Yoon was a lawyer until last year.

He has made repairing this strained relationship a cornerstone of his foreign policy since taking office. With nuclear-armed North Korea becoming more dangerous, Seoul stands to benefit from intelligence sharing and joint military operations.

He also wants to please his ally, the United States, which is desperately trying to bind its partners together in order to counter China’s rise. President Joe Biden hailed Mr Yoon’s Japan deal as “a ground-breaking new chapter”. The next day, he invited him to the White House for a prestigious state visit.

This also marks the beginning of a new chapter in South Korea’s global standing. President Yoon wishes to put an end to his country’s tunnel vision regarding North Korea. Instead, he is looking to the Indo-Pacific for a larger role that South Korea can play. An invitation from Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May would mark a successful mission.

There are also financial benefits to be had. When relations were particularly strained in 2019, Japan imposed export restrictions on the chemicals required by Seoul to manufacture semi-conductors. A senior government official briefed ahead of Thursday’s meeting that lifting these restrictions was a top priority.

This summit provides an opportunity to mend years of broken trust. So far, Seoul has made more concessions than Tokyo. According to one senior diplomat, South Korea has walked across the dancefloor, lights on, and everyone watching, to ask its neighbor out. Japan has agreed to participate in the dance. South Korea, on the other hand, is expecting more.

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