China, North Korea loom large as South Korea, Japan try to make amends

A police officer stands guard near Japan and South Korean national flags at a hotel, where South Korean embassy in Japan is holding the reception to mark the 50th anniversary of normalisation of ties between Seoul and Tokyo, in Tokyo June 22, 2015. — Reuters/File
  • S Korea, Japan leaders to meet in Tokyo on Thursday.
  • Cooperation on N Korea, supply chains likely on agenda.
  • Better ties with Japan won’t exclude China, S Korea’s Yoon says.

South Korea’s willingness to resolve historical disputes in the name of improving relations with Japan is largely driven by concerns over North Korea’s growing capabilities, and managing any rivalry with China, officials and analysts say.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will visit Tokyo on Thursday for a summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first such meeting in Japan in more than a decade.

The two sides will seek to overcome historical disputes dating to the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea, but the most tangible progress may be on North Korea and other security coordination, as well as economic cooperation to shore up supply chains.

“At a critical time, this breakthrough serves as another example of how the web of likeminded alliances and partnerships in the region is tightening in the face of regional threats,” said Christopher Johnstone, head of the Japan programme at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official with US President Joe Biden’s National Security Council.

The summit is the same week as major South Korea-US military drills that routinely anger Pyongyang, and North Korea has already staged multiple missile launches — a backdrop for the message that Japan, South Korea and the United States need to close ranks.

“There is an increasing need for Korea and Japan to cooperate in this time of a polycrisis with North Korean nuclear and missile threats escalating and global supply chains being disrupted,” Yoon said Wednesday in a written interview with international media.

In November South Korea and Japan agreed to exchange real-time intelligence on North Korea’s missile launches, which experts say will help both countries better track potential threats.

South Korea’s sensors typically have a better view of when a missile takes off, while Japan can often better track where it lands.

“To deter North Korea’s ever-more sophisticated nuclear and missile threats, we have to further strengthen ROK-US-Japan security cooperation,” Yoon said, using the initials for South Korea’s official name.

He stressed, however, that such cooperation does not mean entering a military alliance with Japan.

The China question

Closer ties with Japan have not been universally welcomed in South Korea, where polls show many do not believe Tokyo has taken the necessary steps to atone for colonial issues.

Some critics also accuse Yoon of embracing a US-led Cold War mentality toward China, Russia, and North Korea that could lead to South Korea’s being dragged into regional conflicts.

“South Korea is already taking a side and entering the Cold War,” said Kim Joon-hyung, a former chancellor of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy. “That could be a bigger problem, because in the case of a Taiwan contingency, South Korea will be involved.”

Yoon has said that if there is a war over the self-ruled island, which China claims is its own, South Korea’s priority would be to guard against North Korea taking advantage of the situation.

The disputes between South Korea and Japan have been seen as not only undermining US-led efforts to present a unified front against China’s rising influence but also preventing the two US allies from doing more to secure high-tech supply chains that are insulated from China.

Yoon said high-tech cooperation on supply chains between Japan and South Korea would contribute significantly to economic security.

He said such efforts would also include Beijing, and that better South Korea-Japan ties would help “advance economic relations with China in a stable manner.”

‘Shared interests’

Washington had pressed for reconciliation, but a State Department spokesperson said the recent arrangements were the result of bilateral discussions between Japan and South Korea.

Since Yoon’s inauguration in May last year, the Biden administration has set a near-constant pace of senior-level trilateral meetings, Johnston said.

“This rhythm has helped to reinforce a strong sense of shared interests and values that extends well-beyond addressing the North Korean threat,” he said, noting recent first-ever trilateral talks on economic security, and collaboration on critical technologies.

A senior Japanese Defense Ministry official said officials from the three countries would hold talks in Washington next month to discuss specifics of military information sharing.

That South Korea has offered a solution to the issue of wartime forced labour is “a major concession” and could be a milestone in the development of defence cooperation among the three countries, he said.

US officials want South Korea and Japan to better handle the North Korean threat and help Washington focus on other priorities, the Japanese defence ministry official said.

“The United States has no time to spare due to its support for Ukraine and other issues, and in Asia it really wants to concentrate on dealing with China,” he said, adding that the United States wants to draw Seoul closer to the Quad grouping of countries, which includes Japan, Australia, and India.

When asked whether he is pursuing membership in the group, Yoon said South Korea was considering cooperation through participation in the Quad’s working groups on vaccine development and climate change.

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