South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is set to pay an official visit to Japan, seeking to turn the page on feuds dating back to the Japanese colonisation of the Korean peninsula and establish “future-oriented relations” with Tokyo in the face of North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear and missile programmes.
Yoon’s two-day trip, which begins on Thursday, is the first such visit to Japan by a South Korean leader in 12 years.
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It comes days after Yoon’s government offered Japan concessions on South Korean court rulings that ordered two Japanese firms to pay reparations to 15 people forced to work in their factories during World War II.
All eyes will be on any reciprocal steps that Japan’s Prime Minister Fumiko Kishida might take as the Yoon government’s concessions – which propose payouts from a South Korean state-backed fund instead of the Japanese firms – have triggered immediate protests from the three surviving victims, their supporters and the country’s opposition.
As Yoon begins his visit, here’s what you need to know about the feuds between South Korea and Japan as well as Seoul’s efforts to mend ties.
What are the historical feuds?
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have been tense since the South Korean rulings on forced labour in 2018.
The Japanese government has rejected the South Korean Supreme Court orders, arguing that all claims relating to the 1910-1945 colonial era – when hundreds of thousands of Koreans were conscripted into forced labour and prostitution in military brothels – were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised relations between the two countries. Under that deal, Japan provided South Korea’s then-military-backed government with $800m in grants and loans, stating that any issues concerning property, rights and interests of the two countries and their peoples were considered to “have been settled completely and finally”.
But the pact had set off nationwide protests in South Korea, with demonstrators dismissing the deal as humiliating.
Grievances continued to fester, and in the early 1990s, South Korean victims of forced labour began filing for compensation at courts while survivors of the military brothels – known as “comfort women” – went public with accounts of their abuses.
Amid the renewed public outcry in South Korea, Japan offered apologies for its “colonial aggression”, with former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi saying in 1998 that he “humbly accepted the historical fact that Japanese colonial rule inflicted unbearable damage and pain on Korean people, and expressed remorseful repentance and heartfelt apology for the ordeal”.
Japan also set up a fund in 2015 to compensate the women.
But many in South Korea did not consider Japan’s remorse as sufficiently sincere, especially as the ultranationalist former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated last year, and his allies sought to whitewash Japan’s colonial abuses, even suggesting there was no evidence to indicate Japanese authorities coerced Korean women into sexual slavery.
Tensions came to a head in 2018, with the Supreme Court rulings on forced labour as well as then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s decision to dismantle the “comfort women” fund.
Japan, in apparent retaliation, imposed export controls on chemicals critical to the South Korean semiconductor industry.
For its part, South Korea downgraded Japan’s trade status and even threatened to end an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo before backing away amid pressure from the United States.
What is South Korea’s solution?
Hopes of a thaw came when Yoon, a conservative, narrowly won the 2022 election.
Since assuming office, Yoon has doggedly sought to mend ties with Japan, recently describing Tokyo as a “partner that shares universal values with us”. He has also said trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the US “has become more important than ever to overcome the serious nuclear threats posed by North Korea”.
Pyongyang, which has rebuffed US efforts to resume stalled denuclearisation talks, test-fired a record number of ballistic missiles last year and is reportedly preparing for its seventh nuclear test. It has kept up its banned missile tests, firing what South Korea said was an intercontinental ballistic missile just hours ahead of the Yoon-Kishida summit, in its third show of strength this week.
Yoon’s government – touting the need to cooperate with Japan on North Korea – began consultations with the forced labour victims shortly after taking office. And earlier this month, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin unveiled a plan offering the victims and their families reparations through a state-backed foundation, with the money likely to be sourced from domestic companies that benefitted from the 1965 normalisation accord. The plan does not require the Japanese companies involved in the forced labour disputes – Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – to contribute.
Choi Eunmi, an analyst at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the solution was “not perfect, but it is a realistic one considering the realisation of the plaintiff’s legal rights”.
“It can be regarded as opening the door to improving bilateral relations,” she told Al Jazeera.
Yoon said the proposal resulted from government efforts to “respect the positions of victims while also seeking ways that would align with the common interests and future development of both South Korea and Japan”.
Kishida’s government said it welcomed the South Korean plan and that it stood by past official statements that expressed remorse over Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia. It said it will also allow Japanese firms to make voluntary donations to the South Korean foundation.
US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, called Yoon’s proposal a “groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between the US’s closest allies”.
Shortly after, South Korea and Japan announced talks to restore trade relations, and the South Korean industry ministry also said it would suspend a case it brought to the World Trade Organization over the Japanese export curbs. The South Korean defence ministry also said it would work with Japan to enhance security cooperation, including trilateral relations with the US.
But the plan has been met with fierce opposition from the former forced labourers, who are continuing to demand direct payments and an apology from Japan. Opposition politicians meanwhile have condemned it as “submissive diplomacy”.
Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, has called for Yoon’s government to withdraw the plan, calling it “the biggest humiliation and stain in diplomatic history”. The opposition leader’s comments have raised concerns about a reversal in the South Korean stance should the Democratic Party return to power.
A Gallup opinion poll earlier this week also showed that nearly 60 percent of South Koreans are opposed to Yoon’s proposal because it does not require a new apology and reparations from Japan. The poll also showed that 85 percent of South Koreans believed the current Japanese government was not remorseful about its colonial rule.
What’s expected at the Yoon-Kishida summit?
Amid the tensions, Yoon’s visit is “an important milestone” aimed at normalising the bilateral relationship with Japan, according to his office.
It said that Yoon also hoped to expand various security, economy and cultural fields as well as revitalise exchanges between people in the two countries “in order to overcome the unfortunate history of the past and move forward into the future”.
Yoon and Kishida are expected to hold summit talks on Thursday, followed by a dinner. According to Japanese media, Kishida is expected to take Yoon to restaurants in Tokyo’s Ginza district to eat “omurice” or fried rice topped with an omelette, one of the South Korean president’s favourite dishes.
Yoon’s visit will be the first bilateral trip to Japan by a South Korean leader since former President Lee Myung-bak visited Tokyo in December 2011.
Analysts welcomed the trip but were doubtful of a lasting rapprochement.
“Yoon is coming to seal the recently concluded deal on wartime forced labour with Kishida, an accord driven by security concerns and Washington’s desire to have its allies collaborate on current threats rather than dwelling on shared history,” said Jeffrey Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University in Japan
“But in both countries there is little support for the deal so it is unlikely to paper over differences for long, thus increasing chances yet again of disappointing and sowing seeds of mutual recriminations,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Like the 2015 comfort women deal, the forced labour accord is not getting traction because it is trying to diplomatically sidestep the lingering trauma of serious human rights abuses and fails to offer a grand gesture of contrition or reconciliation.”
What are the implications for the region?
Improved ties between South Korea and Japan could pave the way for the two neighbours, both US allies, to cooperate more closely on shared concerns related to North Korea as well as China.
“This visit is very important in the sense that the visit and summit with Japan’s prime minister will work as a catalyst to break the stalemate between two countries that need to cooperate for a variety of reasons: to augment defence and deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, to protect and promote the rules-based-international order, particularly in Indo-Pacific region, and to strengthen economic security,” said Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at the Sogang University in South Korea.
But much will depend on Kishida’s moves, Kim said.
“Yoon’s solution to wartime forced victims compensation is a glass half-full, as Park Jin, Korea’s foreign minister, has said … because Japan needs to reciprocate South Korea’s goodwill gesture,” Kim told Al Jazeera.
Kishida’s plans are not yet clear but Japanese media in recent days said the prime minister was considering a reciprocal visit to South Korea after hosting a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May “in a bid to accelerate efforts to put bilateral ties back on track”.