Opinion & Analysis

Improving South Korea-Japan relations a big positive for NZ

Relations between Japan and South Korea have seen significant progress in the last three months, but can it be sustained? Former New Zealand ambassador to Korea, Philip Turner, takes a look.

New Zealand has a lot at stake in North Asia. The region includes three of our top six trading partners (China, Japan and South Korea), together making up around 40 percent of our total exports. 

Yet the region is increasingly divided politically. 

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, assertive behaviour by China, escalating missile development in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK - otherwise known as North Korea) and tensions around Taiwan have seen China, Russia and the DPRK align tightly. 

Others in the region have responded with increasing concern. Polls in both Japan and South Korea countries show high levels of anxiety about all three countries. Defence spending is rising, as is trilateral defence cooperation with the US. 

With good news in short supply, it comes as some relief to observe Japan and Korea, two of New Zealand's closest friends in the region, moving to patch up their differences. 

In a visit heavy with symbolism, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol paid a joint visit last weekend to the Peace Park Memorial in Hiroshima, including to the memorial to Koreans who died there. 

This was Yoon's second visit to Japan in two months. In between, Kishida made the first bilateral visit by a Japanese prime minister to Korea in 12 years. 

This flurry of visits underlines a sharp improvement in ties in the last three months, following six years of strained relations. 

But the progress remains fragile. It will require sustained effort by both sides to embed current agreements and to defend the relationship against inevitable future challenges. 

Since being elected in May 2022, President Yoon has worked hard to improve the relationship with Japan, offering a series of olive branches. 

Japan was slow to respond - mainly because it feels it has been burned before. Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae-In controversially withdrew from a 2015 agreement on the crucial comfort women issue that both sides had promised would be “a final and irreversible resolution”. 

Many months of behind-the-scenes negotiations bore fruit in March, with the announcement of a breakthrough plan to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during the Japanese colonial period.

That agreement led to progress in wider trade, security and economic issues. In April, both sides agreed to reinstate the other in their respective “white lists” of trusted trading partners. 

Korea agreed to suspend a World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint against Japan, and to normalize intelligence-sharing between the two nations. This month, the finance ministers held their first bilateral meeting in seven years. 

So far so good - yet it remains to be seen whether the progress of the last three months can be sustained.

The disputed islands referred to as Dokdo by Korea and Takeshima by Japan remain a constant source of tension, and an easy go-to issue for politicians eager to whip up nationalist sentiments. Just last month, Japan’s foreign ministry protested yet again a trip by South Korean opposition lawmakers to the islets. 

More importantly, Yoon needs the support or at least the acquiescence of a significant portion of the Korean public to cement the deal on forced labour. He also needs a nod from the South Korean judicial system, indicating that the solution he proposed can halt further disruptive court action. Neither outcome is guaranteed. 

Kishida for his part faces a challenge in establishing his authority within the fractious LDP following the death of former PM Abe Shinzo last year. After a bad second half in 2022, his polls have been rising steadily this year, and are likely to get a further boost from his hosting of the G7 Summit last weekend. 

This suggests a possible virtuous circle, where his strengthening popularity may give him further scope to be constructive towards Korea. 

Yet recent decades have seen a depressing cycle of ups and downs in the Tokyo-Seoul relationship. As in 2015, milestone agreements are struck that seem to herald a long-term recovery, only for traditional bad habits and mistrust to set in once again. 

Both leaders have taken political risks in getting this far – Yoon perhaps more so than Kishida.

In April Yoon told the Washington Post that Korea should move past expecting Japan to “kneel [to Korea] because of our history 100 years ago” – a statement that shocked opponents at home but drew praise from commentators for its political courage. 

Yoon's presence at the G7 Summit itself underlines the value to others in the region of Japan and Korea improving their relationship. 

At the Summit, President Biden commended both leaders for their “courageous work to improve their bilateral ties”. 

In the face of shared concerns about Russia, China and the DPRK, the G7 are eager to see the two powerful North Asian democracies working together to support international norms and the 'rules-based order'. 

New Zealand has the same interest. 

While there is little uncertainty about where New Zealand stands on Russia's invasion, or on North Korean missiles proliferation, our approach to China is more complex and nuanced. 

Like Korea and Japan we have massive trade ties with China; like them we seek to manage carefully the issues on which we disagree, from human rights to the South China Sea. 

Unlike Australia, New Zealand was not present at the G7 Summit. But like Australia, New Zealand is being drawn into gatherings where these issues are forcing us to make calls about where we stand. 

Last year then-New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern joined Japan, Korea and Australia in the first informal meeting of a group referred to as the Asia-Pacific Four (AP4) - though New Zealand prefers not to call it that. 

All four are 'global partners' of NATO. While none are keen to see NATO itself expand into the Indo-Pacific, they all appear to see value in meeting to discuss common interests in a small group, which notably does not include China or the US. 

A further opportunity for the four countries to meet again comes at the NATO Leaders` meeting in Lithuania in July. All four leaders have been invited including PM Chris Hipkins. 

With both Japan and Korea high in New Zealand's priority list of regional partners who share our interests and values, it is unalloyed good news to see the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul break through the ice that has beset it for the last six years. 

New Zealand will be among those hoping for, and quietly encouraging, that improvement to be sustained.

Banner image: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Seoul, May 2023. Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre