Home U.S. News Biden Welcomes South Korea’s Efforts to Warm Relations With Japan

Biden Welcomes South Korea’s Efforts to Warm Relations With Japan

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Biden Welcomes South Korea’s Efforts to Warm Relations With Japan

President Biden hosted the leaders of Japan and South Korea less than two years after relations between the two Asian nations hit a low point and despite entrenched anger in Korea over Japan’s decades-long occupation of the peninsula.

The warming relations between the two nations has been largely driven by a change of policy under President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May 2022, and the thaw highlights how willing Korean officials appear to be to resolve or downplay traditional conflicts in order to address increasingly urgent security issues in the region, including North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs and China’s military buildup.

For years, some Korean officials and ordinary citizens have harbored resentment toward Japan for what they say is an unwillingness to acknowledge and properly provide compensation for the horrors committed in Korea during the Japanese military occupation from 1910 to 1945. Those include forced labor and the sexual enslavement of Korean women in brothels.

Many Koreans are also aware that even before the colonial era, Japan had been exerting greater influence in Korea as it was building up its military and seeking control over significant parts of East Asia.

The intensity of the anti-Japan sentiments in South Korea can shift with changes in political leadership. The administration of Mr. Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, played up historical grievances. Analysts say that was in part because Mr. Moon sought to improve relations with North Korea and knew that the anti-Japan messaging would appeal to Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, and other officials in Pyongyang.

“Japan is tricky territory for every South Korean leader because the pain and anger stemming from colonial rule can bubble up so quickly,” said Jean H. Lee, a recent senior fellow on Korea at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Working closely with the Japanese can draw accusations of being a ‘collaborator,’ particularly among political opponents.”

“Japanese colonial rule was brutal for every Korean family, and the two countries have to find a way to acknowledge and remember their painful history but not at the expense of regional security,” she added.

In August 2019, Mr. Moon decided to end a military-intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, causing concern among U.S. officials. Weeks earlier, Japan had imposed export restrictions on a wide range of products to South Korea.

In contrast, Mr. Yoon has stressed that he is seeking to deter North Korea from aggression rather than to rely on rapprochement, which means greater military cooperation with the United States and Japan.

And in the joint statement from the summit, the three leaders agreed to increased intelligence sharing, “enhanced” defense exercises and increased cooperation on ballistic missile defense.

Mr. Yoon has tried to resolve some of the points of tension with Japan. In March, he announced that South Korea would no longer demand that Japanese companies compensate their Korean victims of forced labor during World War II. Seoul would instead set up a government-run fund to pay the victims directly.

President Yoon’s challenge, Ms. Lee said, will be to convince South Koreans across the political spectrum that “a strong, sustainable strategy for countering economic coercion from China and nuclear threats from North Korea must include strong relationships with Japan and the United States.”

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