The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion South Korea takes a brave step toward reconciliation with Japan

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a Cabinet meeting in Seoul on Tuesday. (Im Hun-jung/Yonhap/AP)
5 min

Sue Mi Terry is director of the Asia Program and the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center. Max Boot is a Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Politics offers few profiles in courage — which is why John F. Kennedy could write a whole book on some notable exceptions. On Monday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol moved to add a new chapter by taking a brave step toward resolving a long-festering, historical dispute with Japan.

During World War II, in the last phase of a brutal colonial regime that began in 1910, Japanese forces conscripted nearly 750,000 Korean men as forced laborers and 200,000 women as “comfort women” (i.e., sex slaves) to serve Japanese soldiers. Though Japan and South Korea resumed diplomatic ties in 1965, the relationship has been a tense one — a cold peace more akin to the Israeli-Egyptian relationship after Camp David than the close German-French cooperation since 1945. Anti-Japanese sentiment remains a strong force in South Korean politics, and Japan has been reluctant to disown its wartime past as fully as Germany has.

The last major attempt at resolving historical disputes occurred under Yoon’s fellow conservative, President Park Geun-hye, who concluded a 2015 agreement with Japan to compensate comfort women. But progressive President Moon Jae-in scuttled that agreement as soon as he took office in 2017.

Then, in 2018, the Korean Supreme Court ordered two major Japanese companies — Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — to pay compensation to wartime laborers. The companies refused, arguing that Japan had already given $500 million in aid and loans to South Korea in 1965 to resolve all wartime claims. In retaliation, the Japanese government imposed restrictions on exports of high-tech materials to South Korea and removed the country from its list of preferred trade partners.

Over the past year, the two countries have tried to walk back from the brink as their leaders met three times on the sidelines of larger international gatherings. This week, a major step forward occurred when Yoon announced that he was dropping demands that the Japanese government compensate Korean laborers. Instead, South Korean companies would establish a fund to compensate the plaintiffs who were awarded damages by the Korean Supreme Court. Seoul’s hope is that Japanese companies will voluntarily contribute, although so far there is no indication that they will. The South Korean and Japanese business federations did announce, however, that they would jointly underwrite a scholarship fund for students from both countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (who, as foreign minister, negotiated the 2015 comfort women agreement) welcomed Yoon’s initiative “as a means for restoring Japan-South Korea relations to a healthy state.” In a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance, Kishida’s government confirmed a 1998 declaration in which a previous Japanese prime minister expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Tokyo is signaling that it will likely lift export controls on South Korea and restore trade ties to the highest level. Next on the agenda might be the first state visit between Japanese and Korean leaders since 2011.

President Biden, whose administration has been quietly pushing for a closer trilateral relationship, hailed what he called a breakthrough “in cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies.”

Taking steps to resolve historical disputes would seem like a no-brainer from the standpoint of South Korean security; Seoul will benefit from closer ties with Japan’s military and intelligence services, especially now that Japan is launching a historic defense buildup. But the move carries considerable political risk for Yoon. It leaves him open to one of the most stinging charges in South Korean politics: that he is soft on Korea’s historic enemy.

Yoon is confronting anti-Japanese sentiment head-on, stating, in his recent declaration commemorating the March 1, 1919, uprising against Japanese rule, that “Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.”

But South Korea’s progressive opposition wasted no time in blasting the attempt at reconciliation. “The Yoon Suk Yeol government is oblivious of the March 1 Independence Movement spirit and is damaging it,” declared the leader of South Korea’s Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung. On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers joined with two forced labor victims in a rally protesting “Yoon Suk Yeol’s Humiliating Diplomacy.” “I won’t accept [South Korean money] even if I starve to death,” one victim vowed.

Such distrust has scuttled previous efforts to improve relations between the two countries, but there is now greater reason for optimism. Today’s international environment is so menacing — with the Russians invading Ukraine, North Korea expanding its nuclear program and China threatening its neighbors — that the two major democracies recognize a greater imperative for cooperation.

Both Yoon and Kishida, moreover, are in the early stages of their terms: Kishida took office in 2021, Yoon in 2022. Barring unexpected developments, they should have several years to build closer ties. South Korea’s constitution limits presidents to a single five-year term, insulating Yoon from the vicissitudes of public opinion and allowing him to pursue this controversial but important opening to Tokyo. On his desk, Yoon has a replica of President Harry S. Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here!” plaque, which Biden gave Yoon last year, and the famously stubborn president tells officials he will take responsibility for any fallout from improving ties with Japan.

If he succeeds, Yoon will establish himself as a profile in courage in Korean politics and write a hopeful new chapter in the fraught relations between South Korea and Japan.