Relations between Japan and South Korea are at a dead end. Officials on both sides have acknowledged the need to improve relations. Beset by stark differences over compensation for historical issues of coerced sexual slaves (so-called comfort women) and forced labor, and contemporary issues of trade, the relationship needs a game changer to alter course. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has called for a “rethink” of the relationship. Conflict-resolution practices beyond East Asia could help us to think outside the box.
Even before assuming office in May 2022, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol made clear his desire for smoother formal relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Locked in a number of interwoven and protracted disputes, South Korea and Japan have been at a diplomatic standstill since well before COVID-19 restrictions shut down everything. Recent peacebuilding efforts are encouraging, with Japan and the United States publicly welcoming South Korea’s overtures as pivotal to plans for regional alignment in the face of North Korea’s provocations and China’s aggressive behavior.
The winds of political change swept through South Korea in early 2022. Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative and former prosecutor general, triumphed in the presidential election. As the incoming president seeks a new direction for Seoul’s foreign policy, perhaps the most politically fraught and sensitive part of his agenda is improving South Korea’s frayed relations with its former colonizer, Japan. Better relations will benefit both countries, but their leaders will need to be careful about how they go about improving relations if they are to create a durable sense of goodwill. They will need to listen to dissident voices, look at their history in new ways and convince the United States to play a productive role.
South Korea and Japan normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes continue to undermine genuine bilateral reconciliation and optimal diplomatic, security and economic cooperation. Past efforts, both between the two countries and trilaterally with the United States, to help improve relations have generally emphasized a “future-oriented” approach that focused on common security and economic interests.