The top leaders of Japan and South Korea will try to maintain momentum toward improved relations when they meet on the sidelines of a Group of Seven summit that begins Friday in Hiroshima.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will meet South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Sunday, the final day of the three-day gathering, according to South Korean officials.
South Korea is not a member of the G-7 group of advanced democracies but was invited by Kishida as an observer, along with the leaders of several other non-G-7 states.
It will be the third recent meeting between Yoon and Kishida, who are charging ahead with expanded security and economic cooperation despite domestic pushback in each country.
Japan-South Korea ties have long been strained by disagreements related to Japan’s brutal 1910-45 occupation of Korea.
The stakes are high. Strong ties between Japan and South Korea, both key U.S. allies, could reshape the security landscape in Northeast Asia at a time of rising concern over China’s more assertive behavior and North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal.
Yoon and Kishida have chosen to focus on shared challenges first, rather than wait for contentious historical disputes to be resolved.
A senior official in the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office defended the approach, saying cooperation on defense and economic issues will ideally “create a more positive atmosphere” in both countries that could eventually allow for progress in other more sensitive areas.
Tokyo is optimistic, in part because Yoon is only one year through his five-year presidential term, said the Japanese official, who spoke to a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Yoon has pushed ahead with his Japan outreach, despite it being broadly unpopular with South Koreans.
South Korean critics say the relationship cannot be mended without more steps by Japan to address past abuses. But many Japanese conservatives oppose any further conciliatory measures, saying Tokyo should not be forced to continue apologizing for its history.
Ups and downs
Ties plummeted in 2018 after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to South Koreans forced to work as slave laborers during the colonial era.
Japan rejected the ruling, insisting all compensation issues were resolved when the two countries established relations in 1965.
Each country then imposed a series of retaliatory measures that affected trade and military cooperation, ultimately driving Japan-South Korea relations to their lowest level in decades.
Ties were stagnant until March, when Yoon unveiled a plan to compensate forced labor victims via a private foundation funded by South Korean – not Japanese – companies.
Almost immediately, both sides began lifting trade and other restrictions. Yoon and Kishida restored the practice of making regular visits to each other’s countries.
Trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States has also expanded – especially on issues related to North Korea.
According to multiple reports, Japan and South Korea are nearing an agreement to connect their radars via a U.S. system to more effectively share information during North Korean missile launches.
But how long can it last?
Much depends on Yoon’s political troubles at home. Opinion polls suggest about 60% of South Koreans oppose the Japan outreach. That means added pressure for Yoon, whose approval rating is hovering in the low 30% range.
A key test for Yoon will come next April, when South Korea holds a legislative election widely expected to serve as a referendum on his presidency. Though South Korean presidents cannot run for reelection, some analysts think Yoon may have less foreign policy flexibility if he cannot deliver a victory for his ruling conservative party.
Many South Korean commentators say public opinion could change if Kishida showed more contrition about the past.
During a visit to Seoul earlier this month, Kishida said his "heart hurts" when he thinks of the suffering and pain experienced by Koreans during Japanese colonial rule, but stopped short of issuing a fresh apology.
Yoon and Kishida will have an opportunity to address historical issues when they visit a Hiroshima memorial that honors Korean victims of the 1945 U.S. atomic bomb attack. More than 30,000 Koreans – many of them forced laborers – are estimated to have died in the attack.
This will be the first time South Korean and Japanese leaders have jointly visited the memorial, lending the move symbolic significance.
"I think it represents a sincere gesture related to the suffering of the Hiroshima atomic bomb victims, as well as the forced labor victims,” said a South Korean foreign ministry official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
However, all public evidence suggests Kishida will move cautiously on historical issues. That approach could partly be explained by his past experience with attempts to improve relations with Seoul.
As foreign minister in 2015, Kishida played a major role in negotiating a settlement related to Japan’s wartime sexual slavery of women – a deal that was effectively nullified by South Korea when a liberal president later took office.
But despite proceeding slowly on history, Yoon and Kishida may be able to sustain diplomatic momentum based on the “imperatives of geopolitics,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer at Stanford University and specialist in Korea-Japan relations.
But, he said: “That leaves historical issues like buried landmines, not far from the surface and ready to be set off.”