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Making the South Korea-Japan Rapprochement Last

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has prioritized fixing South Korea’s relationship with Japan. Can he make it happen?

Yoon met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan on 16 March 2023.
Yoon met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan on 16 March 2023.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has prioritized fixing South Korea’s relationship with Japan. Since taking office last spring, he has made a concerted effort to alleviate deep-running historical strains that revolve around Japan’s ambiguous attitudes about its behavior in Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has almost certainly pushed the two countries to reconcile. Both are U.S. allies, but they scarcely cooperate with each other. The Biden administration views China as the major challenger to U.S. power in the coming decades, and democracies in Asia as various as India, Japan, and Australia also share a basic desire to block Chinese regional hegemony. That task becomes significantly harder, though, if Japan and South Korea cannot cooperate. In a Taiwan contingency, for example, Japanese and South Korean assistance would be very valuable. The U.S. would expect both states to at least provide air space access and logistical assistance, if not fighting capabilities. 

The Strategic Argument

South Korean opinion on foreign policy is sharply divided between right and left. Conservatives take a fairly traditional view of international politics, particularly in the region. North Korea is an Orwellian tyranny, they believe, and Korea should be unified under South Korean leadership just as Germany was unified under West German leadership. China and Russia are autocracies with whom South Korea should maintain a business-like relationship for trade purposes, but not a close political relationship.

Conversely, as a democracy, South Korean conservatives are comfortable aligning the country with the U.S. — the alliance between the two is now 70 years old — and somewhat with Japan. Disappointment with Japan’s mixed apologies for the colonial period is widespread, but to conservatives, this does not undercut modern political realities. Japan is a democracy, while China and North Korea are not. This broadly replicates the regional alignment of the Cold War, and this political position sees South Korea fit comfortably under the U.S. regional security umbrella. President Yoon has spoken in support of this framework throughout his presidency.

South Korean progressives sharply disagree. They view North Korea as a brother Korean state that must be brought in from the cold. Pyongyang’s paranoia is the product of relentless American hostility, they believe, and not of totalitarianism, which is exaggerated by Cold War hawks. China is a longstanding neighbor against whom South Korea cannot align, because Seoul must coexist with Beijing permanently. The U.S. is a partner, but progressives think Washington often bullies South Korea and pulls it into unwanted projects like the war on terror or containment of China. To them, Japan is the real national opponent, not North Korea.

Yoon is pushing against this view. The thrust of South Korean progressivism in foreign policy is toward neutralism, which right now means increasing Seoul’s distance from the U.S. and Japan, and bringing it into greater proximity with China and North Korea. South Korean conservatives fear this will break the alliance with the U.S. If Washington only perceives obligations from the alliance — a requirement to defend South Korea in a war — with no benefits, such as South Korean support against China, then the relationship will fragment.

Will Japan Help Yoon Sell the Deal?

This is almost certainly the long-term logic behind Yoon’s outreach to Japan — to prevent South Korea’s gradual isolation among East Asia’s democracies as the latter converge around the China challenge. But Yoon needs to overcome South Korean progressive opinion, which strongly wants greater contrition from Tokyo about Japan’s imperial period. The South Korean left is quite hostile toward Yoon’s Japan diplomacy.

Japan is wary of further apologies — it perceives that it has apologized enough. But it would be politically wise (and morally right) for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to apologize anyway. South Korea-Japan rapprochement cannot succeed over time without the South Korean left. Whenever South Korean progressives retake the presidency, they will end cooperation with Japan if they feel it has come at the cost of historical conciliation.

Indeed, this has happened before. A previous South Korean conservative president, Park Geun-hye, struck a deal with Japan on imperial issues. It was perceived as a betrayal by South Korean progressives — just as they view today’s rapprochement. When a progressive won the presidency a short time later, he withdrew South Korea from the deal, even though it had already been signed. This is precisely what will happen again if Kishida does not give more.

South Korea-Japan Tension Helps China and North Korea

The big winners in this whole tangle are China and North Korea. If South Korea and Japan cannot coordinate, then their energies, and those of America, are dissipated on coordination and hassle among themselves, not spent on pressing questions like North Korea’s missile program or Chinese designs on Taiwan. It is in everyone’s interest — including, pointedly, Japanese conservatives and South Korean progressives — to find a workable solution. 

Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 



  1. pagar

    May 9, 2023 at 6:56 pm

    This ‘rapprochement’ won’t last. It’s like an agreement made between two expert highwaymen or between two highly skilled casino scammers.

    In the end, both will scheme for the collapse of the other.

    In the process, they will drag one another into the deep end or into the part of the water filled with sharks.

    Both nations deeply distrust one another, and this ‘rapprochement’ is just a piece of playacting neccesitated by the direct personal wish or insistence from current top playactor of the world biden the chief dogbarker.

    Once the chief dogbarker exits the stage, it will be back to business as usual for the two scammers or pros.

  2. 404NotFound

    May 9, 2023 at 7:27 pm

    This fake honeymoon episode or manufactured ersatz will not last.

    South Koreans will never forget the time when their former tormentors or former colonialists tried to stem out their culture and language.

    As a result of those heavy past actions, the Korean language of today is peppered by loan words from their tormentors or occupiers or squatters.

    It’s an unfortunate development or unlucky stroke of history, one the south Koreans can’t reverse or shake off. No hope at all.

    Thus the rapprochement won’t last. It will disappear once the sun of righteous nationalism of both sides moves to 12 o’clock high position.

    For Japan, the days are numbered. The car industry, an important economic pillar, is being overshadowed and even overtaken by erstwhile bit or peripheral competitors and thus finito for the Tokyo state rulers.

    For Seoul, the future isn’t that bright either. The US military has a choking grip on its neck and it is only breathing because the grip has not been forced to the nth degree otherwise it’s certain death. Or send to the next step beyond.

  3. Clifford Williams

    May 10, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    In an area where “saving face” is paramount, this will be difficult.

    What we see in the Korean Left is the same thing we see her int he US and in other regions. The continued fall back on old grievances for political expediency!

    The Japanese are not going to apologize for past harm, they’ve done all they will. Very, very few are alive today that participated in these acts.This is the same idiocy as asking for reparations from American whites for slavery!

    The real problem is none of these countries believe they can base their national security on the guarantee of the US under this administration, an administration that for all intent and purposes is owned by the Chinese!

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