Perspective, #10, 14 August 2023 | Centre for East Asian Studies

The Evolving Synergy between Japan and South Korea

Ayushi Attri

Source: Japan Times

The paper discusses the complex dynamics between Japan and South Korea. Notwithstanding the bitter shared history of the two countries, they are can cooperate on a more significant level. The current wave of warm relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea has occurred against the backdrop of the rise of China and the adverse actions of North Korea. The East China Sea, where the Senkaku Islands and Ieodo Rocks remain disputed, is a uniting factor for the two, including other events such as the modernisation of the Chinese military and China’s use of coercive economic measures in the Asia Pacific. The increasingly unpredictable endeavours of North Korea are also a catalyst in bringing both nations together. Other countries like the United States of America also have a role to play.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the Republic of Korea two weeks before the G7 summit marked an essential step in Japan-South Korea ties. It was the first bilateral visit of a Japanese Prime Minister in 12 years, excluding former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to South Korea for the Pyongyang winter games. The sensitive history of the two countries, which dates back to the 1910s marked by Japanese colonial rule over Korea and past atrocities such as forced labour of Koreans by the Japanese, shapes Korean public opinion and remains an area of contention. This has caused reverberations that have spread to other areas of their relationships. However, concerns about China and North Korea have pushed both nations to seek common ground.

Growing Synergy

A major example includes Japan removing South Korea’s name from the “white list” of nations that receive expedited trade approval, and South Korea quickly followed suit in September 2019. Due to Japan’s tightening of rules and regulations on significant South Korean industries, South Korea also filed a report with the WTO. South Korea became the first country to be removed from the “white list” of Japan. South Korean leader Yoon intended to dilute the tension between Japan and South Korea regarding economy and security. Both countries have worked out their economic differences to an extent with the bilateral visits and policy shifts. After the Yoon-Kishida summit in March 2023, South Korea took back its complaint from the WTO, and Japan eased restrictions on the chemical industries of South Korea. 

During Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to South Korea, he expressed his “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s aggression during the Second World War. Kishida also paid his respects at the cemetery, which contains the graves of people who lost their lives fighting against Japanese colonial rule and those of Korean War veterans. Kishida also extended the G7 invitation to South Korea during his visit. All these actions are not without criticism, especially from South Korean citizens. Nevertheless, Yoon has defended his stance given the situation in their shared neighbourhood vis-a-vis North Korea and China. 

Four Major Drivers of Synergy

Firstly, China’s rising “wolf warrior” diplomacy and increasing claims in the South China Sea have become a mutual challenge for both Japan and South Korea. Increasing military spending by the People’s Republic of China, growing military-civil collaboration, and increased military modernisation, including the rising number of nuclear arsenals under China, pose a real but perceived threat to other neighbouring countries. The lack of transparency about the acquired weapons' purpose, scale, or intended use can lead to suspicions and speculations. This uncertainty can heighten the perception of threat. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Military Expenditure Database, China is considered the world’s second-largest arms producer in 2020, after the United States. Japan has worked to reinforce its alliances, including those with the United States of America and South Korea, through its Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy to defend freedom of navigation at sea.


Secondly, China’s soaring economic growth and development, which also became a point of discussion in the G7 meeting, should not be discounted. Recently, trade restrictions have been imposed on Japan and South Korea due to disagreements with Beijing over matters ranging from the causes of the COVID-19 pandemic to Taiwan, raising concerns about China’s use of coercive economic measures in the Asia Pacific and Europe. In light of worries about Beijing’s rising assertiveness and growing ambitions, bilateral relations between China and the two countries are also deteriorating. The US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, stated, “G7 members are developing the tools to deter and defend against China’s economic intimidation and retaliation,” which shows the international unease towards the growing economy of China and the steps it is employing along the way.

Thirdly, Beijing’s “nine-dash” declaration, which asserts control over almost the entirety of the South China Sea, Japan and South Korea, may have the most at stake. A long-running dispute between China and Japan has centred on the Senkaku Islands, a group of small and uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The main points of contention are the ownership claims made by China and Japan regarding the islands and the rights to use the resources in the nearby waters. Since the conflict’s inception, China and Japan have occasionally exchanged diplomatic messages and conducted military drills in the region. China and South Korea are in a similar dispute over the East China Sea’s Socotra/Ieodo Rock. 

During the March 2023 Summit, considering the threat from North Korea, President Yoon expressed his willingness to fully reinstate the military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, which had been suspended in 2019. The recent North Korean Maligayang-1 satellite launch prompted emergency alerts in Japan and South Korea. The USA, South Korea and Japan condemned this launch and shared real time intelligence and information. In a statement, South Korea’s defence ministry stated that it is “committed to making further progress in the coming months towards the activation of a real-time sharing mechanism for missile warning information.”

Lastly, the US also has a role in this current dynamic. The US has encouraged both countries to cooperate and shift to an aggressive stance concerning North Korea. The US maintains that a more consolidated South Korean and Japanese front would send a powerful signal to North Korea and deter further provocations. Moreover, the US could focus its resources more towards its competition with China and Russia amidst the Ukraine issue. Other democratic and neighbouring countries, such as India, also have much to gain from warmer relations between Japan and South Korea. However, it will be difficult for Japan and South Korea to maintain these ties, where the events of history might serve as a roadblock for the two.

Prospects and Possibilities

Both Japan and South Kore have a powerful economy. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, with a GDP of USD 4.4 trillion, whereas South Korea is the world’s tenth-largest economy, with a GDP of USD 1.9 trillion, according to 2022 International Monetary Fund data. They share a common vision for a strong and secure Asia. It is in their interest to cooperate, collaborate, and take their economies further. Similarly, both countries are known to be technological giants, and for their technological advancement, cooperation in this field might prove valuable. For instance, Japan lifted the conductor export restriction on South Korea. Moreover, private industries are also working together to develop their technology. An example here would be the Japanese tech company Fujitsu coming together with its South Korean counterpart LG to advance Artificial Intelligence chips. 

Japan and Korea have a variety of areas to cooperate on other than defence, including technology, and environmental issues, which have become a global threat. Both countries can work together to strengthen their position in East Asia as liberal and democratic countries and can promote Track III diplomacy to enhance their people-to-people interaction and resolve the unresolved historical animosity among their citizens. 

About the Author 

Ayushi Attri is a Research Affiliate at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS) at Christ University, Bangalore. Her area of interest is Japan's foreign policy and bilateral engagements. Currently, she is researching on how multinational corporations influence foreign policy.

Perspective  #10, 14 August 2023 | Centre for East Asian Studies