Under the leadership of its new President Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea has reinvented the role of the state in today’s changing geopolitical landscape as a global pivot state. The Global Hub State is to focus on issues beyond the Korean Peninsula, to go beyond the subject of North Korea and to focus on making a meaningful contribution with closer cooperation with its ally, the United States. With a new president in Seoul, not only is the role of South Korea changing, but it is once again becoming the standard shifting politics we see as the administration transitions from conservative to Democratic. But this time, Japan’s role becomes more critical in the South Korean strategic equation. Before elaborating on the vital importance of Japan, let me explain why this change leads to a change in the relationship between South Korea and Japan.
Today, South Korea stands at a crucial moment in its history when it must choose between its ally, the United States, on the one hand, and its most important economic partner, China. This tough choice had been in the works for some time, and it became evident under former conservative chairwoman Park Geun-hye, as she called it the Asian paradox. However, with recent global developments like the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain resilience and the war in Ukraine, many states are feeling the pressure to adapt to the looming uncertainty by making betting on which side they believe will secure their strategic interests. This situation of bipolarity in Northeast Asia highlights the importance of Japan for South Korea and the need for diplomatic and political relations, if not better, but durable and coherent. The developing geopolitical situation resembles the one South Korea faced before normalizing relations with the socialist states of China and Russia in the region under the administration of former President Roh Tae-woo.
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Relations between Japan and South Korea
Traditionally, South Korea’s relationship with Japan has been overshadowed by the colonial period under Imperial Japanese rule. As a postcolonial state that suffered under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, certain issues remain in the minds of Korean citizens and are regularly played out by political parties at the national level. The issue of comfort women is one of the most important emotional issues among South Korean citizens and even across the 38th parallel. They had an agreement between the states to settle the issue in 1965, 1998 and 2015. However, it remains a subject that is not considered settled due to the lack of inclusiveness of women’s and victims’ rights groups. in the agreements concluded. Typically, the conservative administration had tried to improve relations with Japan over the past decade under Park and Abe as political bosses. Under President Yoon and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the relationship seems to be going positively.
The shift in perspective from Seoul to Tokyo is not new and is usually seen when the conservative administration comes to power. This is a trend under conservative administrations, as they work closely with the United States on security issues, primarily focusing on North Korean threats. Japan also shares the threat of North Korean nuclear and ballistic weapons with South Korea, and as a vital security player in the region, it seems rational to work together.
However, the need for better and closer relations in the region now goes beyond North Korea as a common factor. South Korea and Japan identify many emerging factors in the region as a strategic threat. These developments have the potential to destabilize peace and security as well as prosperity in the region. The common perception is mainly driven by the redefinition of security in the world, where we see technology used as a tool of geopolitics and geoeconomics by the great powers, moving away from its traditional role as a neutral tool. I have identified three areas that are critical issues where the two countries can cooperate strategically.
South Korea-Japan cooperation
South Korea recognizes the changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region and wishes to be part of an alliance that respects the rule of law and JTFP. Expression of interest in being part of Quad signals this particular intention to work closely with like-minded countries in the region. Additionally, the emergence of AUKUS has reignited the conversation about future South Korean nuclear collaboration. All of this means that the security environment will change dramatically in the years to come, and states staying on guard would become a difficult task to undertake when relying on an unstable geopolitical landscape sandwiched between two great power competitions. . Therefore, it becomes rational for South Korea to work closely with Japan on security threats facing the region, ranging from North Korean nuclear weapons guaranteeing the rule of law, maritime security and illegal fishing. The US administration wants the two countries to work together to address challenges in the region and beyond, as outlined in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
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Besides conventional security issues, another topic that has captured the attention of policy makers and government is the issue of supply chain resilience. South Korea has long benefited from the cheap manufacturing capacity provided by China, undermining any challenges it might face in an extreme case like that offered by Pandemic. Unreliable supply chains can sway countries’ economies to the extent that they can directly affect domestic politics, as we saw in the case of the urea shortage in South Korea. Nevertheless, this issue becomes more vital when strategic sectors like semiconductor shipbuilding, emerging technologies like EV battery come into play. South Korea and Japan share their views on the criticality of these sectors. They have worked with the United States and other states like Taiwan in the region to ensure strong and reliable supply chains. Recently, South Korea also joined IPEF with this in mind.
Finally, South Korea and Japan are a few liberal democratic states in the Indo-Pacific region that respect international law and freedom of navigation on the high seas and in the air. Being export-based economies, both states have an interest in ensuring that the normative frameworks of the liberal international order remain intact, and the opening of the seas is an essential part of this. South Korea saw in the Korean War and then in the Cold War how great power interests supplanted the rules-based international order and the interests of third countries. Therefore, any change in the international order that makes it vulnerable to manipulation by more countries is seen as a concern in South Korea. It mainly affects small and medium powers who see the rules-based international order as a common denominator for countries and rely on it to influence norms and influence policies. Any questioning of the order would render it meaningless and would likewise reduce cooperation on issues of global concern, mainly because the interests of the few will lead the institutions to the few.
In conclusion, South Korea and Japan now find themselves in a situation where the options for cooperation go beyond the simple threat of North Korea. The emerging world order is threatened by authoritarian forces like China in the Indo-Pacific, and it is only a matter of time when state security will be intertwined with critical new technologies. With the stakes high in emerging technologies, South Korea and Japan will need to work together to ensure secure and stable supply chains that are resilient and trustworthy. There remains a looming issue regarding comfort women, which should be addressed in a bipartisan manner so that relationships remain cohesive and unaffected by outside influences. With like-minded states cooperating in the Indo-Pacific region, a new phase of strong ties between South Korea and Japan will help establish a framework that maintains the checks and balances process, which now appears to be slowly influenced by powerful states in the region.
(Disclaimer: The views of the author do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. WION or ZMCL also does not endorse the views of the author.)