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General Studies 2 >> International Relations



1. Context 

South Korean and Japanese leaders will meet in Tokyo this week, hoping to resume regular visits after a gap of over a decade and overcome resentments that date back more than 100 years.

2. Key points

  • The two major Asian economies and U.S. allies have long hoped to cooperate on shared security concerns about China and North Korea, but previous rounds of diplomacy have foundered on unresolved issues from Japan's 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
  • Seoul has offered Tokyo concessions on South Korean demands for compensation over wartime forced labour, but it remains to be seen whether the South Korean public will accept reconciliation.

3. Issues

  • Japan effectively colonized the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, in a regime that imposed Japanese names and language on Koreans and conscripted many into forced labour or forced prostitution in military brothels before and during World War II.
  • Japan paid $800 million in reparations to South Korea's military-run government in 1965, but this money was never distributed to victims.
  • A semi-government fund offered compensation to former "comfort women" when the government apologized in 1995, but many South Koreans believe that the Japanese government must take more direct responsibility for the occupation.
  • The two sides also have a longstanding territorial dispute over a group of islands controlled by South Korea and claimed by Japan.
  • Seoul and Tokyo have attempted to establish better ties before.
  • In 2004, leaders began regular visits but these ended in 2012 after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islands.
  • Tensions escalated in the past 10 years as conservative Japanese governments moved to rearm the country while stepping up attempts to whitewash Japan's wartime atrocities and in 2018 South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japan's Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate forces labour victims.
  • In 2019, Japan, in apparent retaliation, placed export controls on chemicals used to make semiconductors and displays used in smartphones and other high-tech devices.

4. Expectations at the Summit

  • South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have met in multilateral settings, including on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in New York in September, this is the first formal bilateral summit since a meeting in Seoul in 2015.
  • Kishida is expected to reaffirm Japan's past expressions of remorse over its wartime actions.
    Both sides have signalled hopes that this summit will lead to a resumption of regular bilateral visits.
  • Tokyo is also considering an invitation to Yoon to return to Japan as an observer at the Group of Seven Summits Kishida will host in Hiroshima in May.
  • Two sides are considering establishing a separate, private fund to promote bilateral economy, security, culture and other key areas of cooperation.

5. The stake in the region

  • Improved ties between South Korea and Japan could pave the way for the two U.S. allies to cooperate more closely on shared security concerns related to China and North Korea.
  • Washington is eager to get its allies on the same page and appears to have worked intensively to bring about the summit.
  • The U.S. and its two allies had about 40 trilateral meetings and cooperation in the process helped to build up trust.
  • While Japan increasingly bolstered defence ties with the U.K., Australia, India and the Philippines, challenges in Japan-South Korea relations were obvious and their closer relationship in the larger context of strategic alignment is a very big deal.
  • South Korean officials have denied direct pressure from the Biden administration to resolve the historical discord with Tokyo, but the plan is part of the South Korean efforts to strengthen alliances to counter North Korea, which has been expanding nuclear-capable missiles and issuing threats of preemptive nuclear strikes.
  • While pushing to expand U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, the Yoon government has sought Washington's stronger reassurances to swiftly and decisively use its nuclear weapons to protect its ally from North Korea.
  • Seoul and Tokyo last week also announced plans for talks to restore the country's trade relations, which could relieve pressure from global high-tech supply chains.
  • South Korean officials say stronger economic cooperation with Tokyo has become more crucial in the face of industrial supply chain disruptions and other global challenges.
  • The need to strengthen South Korea-Japan cooperation has never been greater in the era of complex crises, brought by uncertainties in global geopolitics, North Korea's continued nuclear and missile testing activity and the disruption in industrial supply chains.

6. Japan South Korean history

  • The two countries will have to find an accommodation on history if this round of diplomacy is to achieve lasting results.
  • Seoul made a significant concession before the summit, announcing plans to use its funds to pay out compensation from the 2018 court order.
  • South Korea will offer reparations to the plaintiffs through an existing state-run foundation that will raise money from South Korean companies that benefited from the 1965 accord accompanied by $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul.
  • It's a major relief for Tokyo, which fears that further South Korean court orders could impose massive compensation demands on hundreds of other Japanese companies that used wartime forced labour.
  • The plan has met fierce opposition from surviving forced labour victims, their supporters and opposition politicians, who have demanded compensation directly from Japanese companies and a fresh apology from Tokyo.
  • Only three of the 15 forced labour victims who won damages in 2018 are still alive and all three refused to accept South Korean Payments in written notes submitted to the foundation.
  • South Korean law allows for third-party reimbursements and officials said that they will do their best to persuade the victims to accept the payments.
  • South Korean officials say they do not expect Nippon Steel or Mitsubishi to immediately contribute to funds for the forced labour victims and Japan's Foreign Minister said it's up to Japanese companies to decide whether to contribute to the funds voluntarily.
  • The future of the deal may also rest on whether Kishida's government can win over South Korean Public opinion. 
  • South Korean officials express hope that Yoon brings back a "Sincere response" from Tokyo as bilateral relations improve.

For Prelims & Mains

For Prelims: Japan, South Korea, North Korea, US, World War II, 

Previous year questions

For Prelims:

1. What is “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)”, sometimes seen in the news? ( UPSC 2018)

(a) An Israeli radar system
(b) India’s indigenous anti-missile programme
(c) An American anti-missile system
(d) A defence collaboration between Japan and South Korea.

1. Ans: (c)

For Mains:
1. Evaluate the economic and strategic dimensions of India’s Look East Policy in the context of the post-Cold War international scenario. ( UPSC 2016)
Source: The Indian Express

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