South Korea and Japan’s leaders have held talks in Tokyo in what has been hailed as a milestone in their fraught relationship. It comes just as North Korea fired a fourth round of missiles in a week – a reminder of why security is being prioritised over past disputes.
The leaders agreed to resume regular visits, and resolved a long-running trade dispute. Japan agreed to lift restrictions on exports of semi-conductor materials, while South Korea withdrew its complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pulled off quite the coup to get this summit.
This is the first time a South Korean leader has been invited to Tokyo for such a meeting in 12 years.
The relationship between these neighbours has been plagued for decades by their difficult history. South Korea was colonised by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War Two. Japanese soldiers forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work in its mines and factories. Women were pushed into sexual slavery.
But last week, President Yoon dropped the demand that Japan compensate some of the victims of its slavery. He agreed South Korea would raise the money instead. In doing so he sought to put aside the past for the sake of the security of northeast Asia.
The opposition leader branded the deal the “biggest humiliation in our history”. But it won President Yoon this trip to Tokyo. Diplomats here are quietly surprised and impressed. They see it as a brave and astute move, especially for a political novice, with no foreign policy experience. Until last year, Mr Yoon was a lawyer.
Since taking office, he has made repairing this fractured relationship a cornerstone of his foreign policy. With nuclear-armed North Korea becoming more dangerous, Seoul stands to benefit from sharing intelligence with Tokyo and having their militaries work together.
He also wants to please his ally, the US, which is desperately trying to draw its partners closer to combat the rise of China. President Joe Biden hailed Mr Yoon’s Japan deal as “a ground-breaking new chapter”. The next day he sent him an invitation to the White House for a prestigious state visit.
This also signals a fresh chapter for South Korea’s place in the world. President Yoon wants to end what he sees as his country’s tunnel-vision over North Korea. Instead he is looking outwards, across the Indo-Pacific, at the bigger role South Korea can play. An invitation by the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to May’s G7 summit in Hiroshima would be a mission accomplished.
There are economic rewards to be reaped too. In 2019, when relations were particularly sour, Japan imposed export restrictions on the chemicals Seoul needs to build its semi-conductors. Getting these lifted was a top priority, briefed a senior government official ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
This summit offers a chance to repair years of broken trust. So far Seoul has conceded more than Tokyo. As one senior diplomat put it to me, South Korea has walked across the dancefloor, lights on, everyone watching, to ask its neighbour out. Japan has agreed to dance. But South Korea is expecting more.