Analysis – China and North Korea play big roles while South Korea and Japan try to make amends
By Josh Smith and Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s willingness to settle historic disputes in the name of improving ties with Japan is largely driven by concerns about North Korea’s growing capabilities and handling of any rivalry with China, officials and analysts say.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will visit Tokyo on Thursday for a summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first such meeting in Japan in more than a decade.
The two sides will seek to resolve historic disputes dating back to Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, but the most tangible advances could be made on North Korea and other security coordination, as well as economic cooperation to shore up supply chains.
“At a critical time, this breakthrough is another example of how the region’s web of like-minded alliances and partnerships is tightening in the face of regional threats,” said Christopher Johnstone, director of the Japan program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies and A former official on US President Joe Biden’s National Security Council.
The summit comes the same week as major South Korea-US military exercises that routinely anger Pyongyang, and North Korea has already conducted multiple missile launches – a backdrop to the message that Japan, South Korea and the United States must close ranks.
“Korea and Japan must increasingly work together at this time of a polycrisis with escalating North Korean nuclear and missile threats and disrupted global supply chains,” Yoon said in a written interview with international media on Wednesday.
In November, South Korea and Japan agreed to share real-time information on North Korea’s missile launches, which experts say will help both countries better track potential threats.
South Korea’s sensors usually have a better view of when a missile launches, while Japan is often better at tracking where it lands.
“To counter North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile threats, we must continue to strengthen security cooperation between the ROK, the US and Japan,” Yoon said, using the initials for South Korea’s official name.
However, he stressed that such cooperation does not mean entering into a military alliance with Japan.
THE CHINA QUESTION
Closer ties with Japan have not been universally welcomed in South Korea, where polls show many do not believe Tokyo has taken the necessary steps to atone for colonial troubles.
Some critics also accuse Yoon of adopting a US-led Cold War mentality towards China, Russia and North Korea, which could result in South Korea being drawn into regional conflicts.
“South Korea is already taking sides and entering the Cold War,” said Kim Joon-hyung, a former chancellor of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy. “That could be a bigger problem because if there is a Taiwan emergency, South Korea will be involved.”
Yoon said if there were to be a war over the self-governing island China claims, South Korea’s priority would be to protect itself from North Korea taking advantage of the situation.
The disputes between South Korea and Japan have been seen not only as undermining US-led efforts to form a united front against China’s growing influence, but also as a hindrance for the two US allies to do more to address high-tech isolated from China – Secure supply chains.
Yoon said high-tech cooperation in supply chains between Japan and South Korea would greatly contribute to economic security.
He said such efforts would also include Beijing, and that better South Korea-Japan relations would help “promote economic ties with China in a stable manner.”
Washington had been pushing for a reconciliation, but a State Department spokesman said the latest agreements were the result of bilateral talks between Japan and South Korea.
Since Yoon’s inauguration in May last year, the Biden administration has maintained a near-constant pace of high-level trilateral meetings, Johnston said.
“This rhythm has helped fuel a strong sense of shared interests and values that goes far beyond dealing with the North Korean threat,” he said, referring to the recent first-ever trilateral talks on economic security and cooperation on critical technologies.
A senior Japanese Defense Ministry official said officials from the three countries would hold talks in Washington next month to discuss details of military information sharing.
That South Korea offered a solution to the problem of wartime forced labor is “a major concession” and could be a milestone in the development of defense cooperation between the three countries, he said.
US officials want South Korea and Japan to better deal with the North Korean threat and help Washington focus on other priorities, the Japanese Defense Ministry official said.
“The United States has no time to waste because of their support for Ukraine and other issues, and in Asia they really want to focus on dealing with China,” he said, adding that the United States wants Seoul closer to the Quad- Want to use a grouping of countries that include Japan, Australia and India.
When asked if he would seek membership in the group, Yoon said South Korea is considering collaborating by participating in the Quad working groups on vaccine development and climate change.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Yukiko Toyoda, Sakura Murakami and Yoshifumi Takemoto in Tokyo, and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul; Editing by Gerry Doyle)