Japan-South Korea ties ‘positive’ after Israel evacuation aid, but could a new leader ‘turn things upside down’?

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Japan has expressed its gratitude to South Korea for helping to evacuate 51 Japanese nationals from Israel last week, the latest indication that Tokyo and Seoul are making progress in efforts to repair a relationship that has been badly bruised in recent years.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa on Sunday spoke to her South Korean counterpart Park Jin, after a South Korean military KC-330 transport aircraft touched down at Seoul Air Base the previous day carrying 192 South Koreans and six Singaporeans, as well as the Japanese nationals.

The two ministers agreed to work together to safeguard their citizens around the world in the future, and Kamikawa vowed that Japan would assist South Korean nationals when the occasion required it.

Palestine envoy pleas for Japan to stay neutral, provide aid

“What is really significant to me is that the two sides are not making a really big deal out of this situation, but that they are now openly agreeing to help each other out again in the future,” said Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an international relations assistant professor at the University of Tokyo. “That might seem a small thing, but I see it as a very positive development.”

On Friday, President Yoon Suk-yeol told a gathering of two bilateral friendship associations that people exchanges between the two countries were picking up pace now that the coronavirus pandemic was over.

Yoon’s office later issued a statement quoting the president as saying: “This is evidence that the improvement and development of South Korea-Japan relations are the wish and will of the two countries’ peoples.”

There are other indications the neighbours are rebuilding bridges, with plans announced to build on the 1998 Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration, signed by then-prime minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung. In the statement, Obuchi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s often brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early decades of the last century.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi toast in Tokyo on October 8, 1998. Photo: AP

At the same time, a poll released on October 12 showed that 37.4 per cent of Japanese had a “good impression” of South Korea, the highest figure since the annual poll was first conducted in 2013 and the first time the number of people with a positive impression was higher than those with a negative impression. Japanese expressed an interest in shopping and dining in South Korea, as well as local pop culture.

For their part, South Koreans are buying Japanese beer and clothes after a consumer boycott of Japanese brands faded.

Tourism has also bounced back dramatically since travel restrictions were lifted, with 665,611 Japanese visiting South Korea in the first five months of 2023, accounting for more than 19 per cent of all overseas arrivals. The figure is on course to come close to the full-year figure of 1.84 million in 2015, the lowest full year in the last decade other than years affected by Covid-19.

Between January and June, more than 3 million South Koreans travelled to Japan for a holiday, the largest arrivals by nationality.

“These are all positive developments, particularly the plans for the Kim-Obuchi statement on its 25th anniversary,” Hinata-Yamaguchi said. “When it was signed that was a benchmark, forward-looking agreement, and it is significant that they do not want to revise it, but to ‘upgrade’ it.”

Tourists at Myeongdong shopping district in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Reuters

Despite the apparently positive news, however, analysts warn that deeply held animosities still lurk close to the surface and historic resentments and perceived injustices could easily be invoked once again, quickly reversing any recent improvements in bilateral ties.

“There are many historical issues between Japan and South Korea and nothing is happening to solve these problems,” said Yuji Hosaka, a professor of history and politics at Seoul’s Sejong University.

“Yes, many Koreans like to visit Japan, but partly that is because the yen is so weak at the moment, but Koreans still do not think well of Japan or the Japanese,” he added.

Analysts were concerned that a change in administration might undo all the work done to improve bilateral ties.

Should the opposition Democratic Party win the next election in 2027 given Yoon’s unpopularity with the South Korean public, “issues such as compensation for the ‘comfort women’ and forced labourers to come up again and issues like the sovereignty of Dok-do to rise again”, Hosaka said.

Dokdo or the Takeshima islands is a group of islands in the Sea of Japan that are home to a detachment of South Korean police, but the territory is claimed by Tokyo.

Hinata-Yamaguchi shared those concerns.

“An incoming administration in Seoul could completely turn things upside down,” he said. “It would be very easy for a new progressive government to sacrifice anything that a previous conservative administration had said and done because of the depth of politicisation in Korean politics.

“I’m feeling pretty positive about how things are progressing at the moment … but the two leaderships need to show their respective publics that the relationship is mutually beneficial,” he said. “Failing to do that could set us all back a long way once again.”

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