Japan-South Korea: Why Rapprochement Is Not Always A Sign Of Peace
The weight of history, and of this geopolitical moment, is propelling the current visit of Japanese Prime Minister in South Korea. Washington is happy that its alliances are aligning, but that's a sign of how high tensions are running in Asia right now.
South Korea and Japan have taken a major step to end a paradox. Indeed, both countries face the same threat, that of a nuclear-armed North Korea. They have the same ally, the United States — and are also uncomfortable neighbors of the Chinese giant.
And yet, they've been separated by the weight of history.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio's official visit to South Korea, which began Sunday, is the first by a Japanese leader in 11 years. The visit began at the cemetery of war victims, including those of the anti-Japanese struggle: Japan brutally colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and this page of history has never been completely turned.
Korean public opinion is divided on this reconciliation, believing that Tokyo has never truly apologized.
Fumio stated Sunday that he had a "heavy heart" when thinking about the suffering of that time, but he did not make a formal apology. But to South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, it is necessary to overcome this wound from the last century: what brings the two countries together today is more important than what separates them.
For this to happen, the South Korean president had to overcome an obstacle: a Seoul court ordered Japanese companies to compensate forced laborers during the occupation. But Tokyo is opposed to the ruling, believing that the issue was settled by a treaty in the 1960s.
President Yoon came up with a solution: he created a private fund to handle the compensations. Many Koreans are against this solution, as it exonerates Japan, even if one of the survivors involved in the case has accepted the terms. Although unpopular in South Korea, this solution essentially allowed Kishida's visit to take place.
To see how charged the geopolitical context is, just look at a map.
The United States has worked hard towards this rapprochement, considering it catastrophic for their two main allies in northeast Asia to be at a standoff — both countries are linked to Washington by treaties and host American military bases.
China's missile destroyer Suzhou returning to a military port in Zhoushan, in the Zhejiang Province
Alignment of alliances
To see how charged the geopolitical context is, just look at a map. North Korea's missile arsenal threatens both South Korea and Japan, which are regularly flown over by Kim Jong-un's missile tests. The proximity of China, which is an obsession of Washington, is also crucial.
One of the consequences of this rapprochement is an agreement, signed in 2016 but never implemented, for the sharing of intelligence between Seoul and Tokyo. It seemed absurd at the time, since both were U.S. allies in a sensitive region.
The United States is thus taking care of its alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, to contain the rise of China, a strategy inherited from the Cold War and brought up-to-date. This area is one of the nerve centers of the global economy, a place of innovation. But it is also one of the most explosive regions of the globe, which makes the alignment of alliances logical. Yet such alignments are not necessarily a sign of peace — often just the contrary.