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Seoul Pursues New Entente With Japan
Asia tensions with China, North Korea drive longtime antagonists together
By: Shim Jae Hoon
The South Korean government’s March 6 decision compensating Korean laborers drafted to work for Japanese companies during World War II marks a new step in pursuit of a historic entente with Japan.
The move is expected to clear the way not only for closer trade relations but also bilateral security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and China’s growing menace over Taiwan. By clearing one of the most contentious problems stemming from Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula that ended in 1945, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hopes to take Seoul a step closer to strengthening the trilateral security format led by the US against China’s recent expansionist posture.
According to the details of Seoul’s announcement, a civilian foundation is to be launched under government initiatives to pay out 15 surviving laborers and their families who have sued Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corporation. They will be paid about KRW4 billion (U$2.03 million) as stipulated in the 2018 Korean Supreme Court ruling.
With neither the Japanese corporations nor the Japanese government willing to accept the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling, President Yoon Suk Yeol has chosen what officials describe as a “third way resolution” by having Korean corporations that benefited from the 1965 loans and grants worth US$500 million to pay out Korean litigants. This solution formally recognizes the 1965 diplomatic normalization treaty under which South Korea waived all future claims against Japan’s 35-year colonial rule.
In return, Japan is expected to restore Korea to its preferential trade list, allowing exports of sensitive materials needed for manufacturing semiconductor chips. In turn, Seoul will resume intelligence sharing on North Korea’s military movements. It is Seoul’s hope that the resumption of full-scale cooperation on trade and military intelligence will eventually lead to closer cooperation at a higher military level, such as joint field exercises between the two countries’ armies and navies.
President Yoon’s initiative on the question of labor compensation has been enthusiastically received in Tokyo and Washington. Yoon will be heading to Tokyo later this month to symbolize the new entente and to discuss security cooperation with Prime Minister Kishida on how better to deal with North Korea's missile launches, which have fallen closer to Japanese territorial waters in the Sea of Japan. It will be first such Japan-Korea fully-fledged summit in years, focusing not only on trade matters but also security cooperation.
These bilateral talks on security also respond to US President Joe Biden's longstanding hope for the resolution of disputes between the two East Asian allies in the interests of strengthening the Indo-Pacific security alliance. Yoon will also visit the G7 summit in Hiroshima later in the summer for a trilateral summit with Kishi and Biden to firm up the trilateral alliance.
All these initiatives will enable South Korea to make firmer security commitments not only against North Korea’s threats but also against the security crisis stemming from China’s assertive regional expansionism. Early this year, South Korea’s biannual defense white paper for the first time in years identified North Korea as a “clear enemy,” committed to destroying South Korea with its weapons of mass destruction. The paper departs from the earlier position taken by the previous administration under President Moon Jae In, which emphasized North Korea as subject for peaceful dialogue.
Under the new conservative government that came to power last May, President Yoon is open to dialogue but on condition that Kim Jong Un commits to undertake denuclearization.
Yoon’s talks with President Biden will focus on reconfirming the US pledge to place South Korea under its Extended Deterrence coverage, meaning US readiness to use its nuclear arsenal to counter North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons in the event of war. Yoon, however, is pressing Biden to include Seoul in the so-called NATO formula, under which NATO members have a say on the use of nuclear weapons in time of enemy attacks.
Instead, Washington is taking an alternative course of beefing up joint field exercises with South Korean troops, recently dispatching nuclear submarines and supersonic bombers and fighter jets.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggressive intent on Taiwan, Yoon realizes the importance of holding fast on regional security on the peninsula. “This is no time to linger in the past,” he reportedly told his aides who were worrying about domestic political backlash arising from his Japan initiatives.
Yoon's initiative has drawn sharp reactions from the opposition Democratic Party, calling it a 'sellout" and a "betrayal" of national interests. The left-wing, nationalist Democrats that control the single-chamber parliament are calling for nationwide protest rallies which it aims to use to win the next election in April next year. The call to action is unlikely to make significant impact on the electorate tired of its constant agitation against the government, however. The country hasn't forgotten high tax and huge property price hikes during the last Democratic administration. The war in Ukraine and the big upsurge in North Korean missile threats as well as China's threats on Taiwan have alarmed Korean voters, swinging their support back to Yoon’s conservative People Power party.
Yoon, supported by the business community and a conservative electorate, is determined to prevail. A week before the announcement on labor compensation, Yoon in a major speech bluntly told South Koreans to stop thinking of Japan as a “militaristic aggressor” that had colonized their country at the turn of the last century, but rather as a “new partner that shares universal values with Korea and on many global agendas.”
As with the military leader Park Chung Hee who pushed through industrialization with economic aid from Japan in the previous century, Yoon clearly regards Japan as a critical partner to protect peace and promote the market economy by consolidating relations with Tokyo. He has hopes that the latest resolution on laborer compensation should prompt top business organizations of the two countries – Japan Business Federation (called Keidanren) and Federation of Korean Industries (known as chaebol organizations) – to together launch a joint foundation to specifically promote exchanges of the two countries’ youth leaders. It leaves little doubt that Yoon is taking a long perspective on the two countries’ future.