Democracies are supposed to be based on the ideals of freedom and democracy and stay together to fight any threat to their shared values. Do Japan and South Korea, the two leading democracies in East Asia, follow this golden principle?
Observers say Japan and Korea have had close ties since ancient times. They came to establish a diplomatic relationship in 1965, with the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations. Subsequently, Japan recognized South Korea (the Republic of Korea, its official name) as the only legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula. Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. Today, both Japan and South Korea share common threats from North Korea, China, and Russia. They have been close military allies of the United States in dealing with this threat. Today they are home to more than 80,000 American troops. Besides, South Korea has an investment agreement with Japan. The two nations are members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
However, Seoul-Tokyo ties are far from cordial. The two have been divided over a number of issues. South Korea and Japan have had conflicting claims over the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima). South Korea occupies the Takeshima islands. Recently, at a press conference, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno stressed: “Takeshima is inherently Japanese territory… We will continue to strongly demand” it.
South Korea has been very critical of Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the latter’s use of sex slaves, “comfort women.” South Korea has flayed whenever a Japanese prime minister has happened to visit Yasukuni Shrine.
Under the presidency of Moon Jae In in South Korea, the country’s ties with Japan reached their lowest point. In 2018, the radar of a South Korean naval vessel happened to be locked onto a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) patrol aircraft flying overhead.
Since South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took over the reins of their respective governments, there have been auspicious signs in Seoul-Tokyo ties. Kishida has been emphasizing strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea ( and the United States). He says it is needed “more than ever, given that the rules-based international order is under threat.”
Yoon and Kishida are today on the same page as far as dealing with the threat North Korea and China pose to their nations is concerned. Like Kishida, Yoon is eager for stronger military ties with the US to deal with the two communist nations. Yoon has also suggested that he would consider joining the Quad, of which Japan is a key member.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and his South Korean counterpart Park Jin are believed to be focusing well on improving ties between the two nations. Last month, Hayashi met Park during Yoon’s inauguration. Park can speak Japanese and communicate very well with all higher Japanese officials. Reports are that Hayashi and Park may be meeting later this month in Tokyo, and that may be followed by a meeting between Kishida and Yoon in Madrid.
(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)