Overcoming the past: the challenge of Japan-South Korea rapprochement

WHAT’S HAPPENING? Japan and South Korea are on the cusp of a thaw in bilateral relations. The result could be


Japan and South Korea are on the cusp of a thaw in bilateral relations. The result could be a powerful economic and security alliance, if they can overcome long-standing historical issues.


– South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced that long-standing wartime disputes with Japan have finally been settled
– While rapprochement appears to have been achieved, South Korea remains divided on the matter, and challenges remain
– Lasting improvement in bilateral ties depends largely on the economic benefits this rapprochement brings about


Relations between South Korea and Japan have been improving rapidly since the beginning of 2023. Long-standing allegations by South Korea of Japanese wartime atrocities and Japan’s apparent lack of remorse and refusal to pay compensation have repeatedly hindered attempts at strengthening bilateral ties, though both countries are important trade partners and close allies of the US. 

But on March 6, the South Korean government announced a plan to unilaterally resolve one of the most pressing issues of recent years: The compensation of South Korean victims of forced labor under Japanese colonial rule during World War Two. Under the new scheme, the South Korean government will compensate the Korean victims and drop its claims for Japanese compensation.

US President Joe Biden hailed the plan as “groundbreaking” and Japan responded by inviting South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to Tokyo, in the first such visit in 12 years. Yoon met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in person on March 16. Both leaders agreed to mend ties and confront threats such as China and North Korea jointly. They also agreed to drop existing trade disputes and to reinstate military intelligence sharing. Yoon called it an “important milestone,” and Kishida referred to it as the beginning of a “new chapter.”

Now that rapprochement appears certain, the US has already proposed a new trilateral security format with South Korea and Japan, to jointly face threats from North Korea and China. Two weeks after the Yoon-Kishida summit, the three nations staged joint anti-submarine naval drills off South Korea’s coast. 

However, within South Korea the announcement of Yoon’s plan was immediately followed by protests, as the scheme remains controversial domestically and is seen by many as unjustly absolving Japan of its responsibilities. Yoon’s solution appears to be a success story for South Korean foreign policy, but the South Korean general public still has yet to be convinced of the benefits of rapprochement with Japan. Whether the two neighbors and economic heavyweights can become lasting allies depends in large part on whether the people of South Korea accept that Japan has done enough to atone for its past sins. 


The two countries have a history of troubled relations. The current low started in 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to pay compensation to Korean survivors of Japanese forced labor. This angered the Japanese government under Abe Shinzo, which vehemently opposed the verdict. 

Japan imposed trade sanctions on South Korea, restricting export of Japanese parts needed for semiconductor manufacturing. The Japanese government pointed repeatedly to a bilateral treaty of 1965, in which Seoul rescinded any future claims against Japan for reparations. However, this stance further infuriated many South Koreans.

To many, present problems started with Japan’s government, under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The LDP has governed Japan nearly uninterrupted since the end of World War Two. The LDP was founded shortly after the war and has historically included class-A war criminals, accused of responsibility for the war. Unlike Germany, where many such war criminals were sentenced to death, most in Japan were pardoned by the US or subsequently released.

At the outset of the Cold War, Washington was more concerned with forestalling Communism in Japan than with the consequences of letting some of those responsible for the war continue to govern the country. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty restored Japan as a sovereign—albeit strictly pacifist—state, and exempted it from most reparations to ensure the country’s economic development. 

Seoul had no chance to protest. It was excluded from the San Francisco treaty and had no official relations with Japan. During the 1950s, South Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries. Seoul depended on international aid to feed its impoverished population, a dependency that worsened after the Korean War ravaged the country. 

The 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea was meant to pave the way to open diplomatic relations and for South Korea to gain access to both the lucrative Japanese market and substantial Japanese development aid. Yet, the precondition was that Seoul officially rescind all claims of reparations against Tokyo for World War Two.

Despite the economic importance of this treaty to South Korea, it was very unpopular domestically and would have likely gone unsigned in a democratic system. However, South Korea was a military dictatorship, under the rule of President Park Chung-hee. Park controlled the legislature and prioritized economic development over all other spheres. 

Even so, he had to declare martial law to quell public demonstrations and his cabinet resigned en masse in protest, as did many legislators. Protest centered Japan’s role as a colonial oppressor, a major factor behind the country’s mid-century poverty. The only apology  that Japan offered as part of the treaty came when the Japanese foreign minister admitted to unspecified “unhappy times” between the two countries and expressing regret for them.

After the normalization of relations, there were other attempts at overcoming the past. In 1993, the LDP lost its governing majority to an opposition coalition under Hosokawa Morihiro. Hosokawa became the first prime minister to openly apologize for Japan’s wartime actions in Korea, clearly and unambiguously calling his country the “aggressor”. He was soon succeeded by another non-LDP prime minister, Murayama Tomiichi, who delivered a landmark apology speech at the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, in which he officially apologized on behalf of the Japanese government for atrocities committed. This became Japan’s standard apology, which was also upheld by LDP-Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro for the 60th anniversary in 2005.

Bilateral relations worsened under the administration of Abe Shinzo. Abe repeatedly denied that atrocities occurred under Japanese colonial rule and declined to discuss the matter. He also refused to reissue the 1995 apology on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end and declared that future generations of Japanese should not have to apologize for past mistakes. That Abe was the grandson of former Prime Minister and pardoned class-A war criminal Kishi Nobosuke only complicated his chances of improving ties with Seoul. 

Remembrance of colonial trauma has little effect on most of the Japanese electorate, who elected Abe for his economic promises, but those memories are crucial to a majority of South Koreans. Over half of South Koreans still claim negative feelings toward Japan for this reason.

Still, there is room for cautious optimism. Abe had been deeply resented by much of the South Korean public, leading to a large-scale boycott of Japanese products under the slogan “NO Abe”. Yet, his direct political influence came to an end with his assassination in 2022, and South Koreans’ perception of Japan has improved since. In addition, China has replaced Japan as South Korea’s most hated country. One recent survey found that 81% of South Koreans have a negative or very negative attitude toward China. Due to China’s increasingly aggressive stance toward its neighbors and its inability to control North Korea, this trend will likely continue. This could be the start of a lasting rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo.


In 2015, the government of then-President Park Geun-hye announced that it had resolved the bilateral issue of South Korean “comfort women”—a euphemism for Japan’s wartime sex slaves. The governments of Park and Abe came to an agreement that was meant to rekindle economic ties. 

Then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called the agreement “epoch making” and said that it was setting the “stage for advancement of security cooperation between Japan and South Korea.” However, instead of resolving the issue for South Korea and kick-starting rapprochement, it hastened Park’s downfall. Park, the daughter of the former dictator who strong armed the 1965 agreement through parliament, was unable to disregard public opinion on the matter. As of March 2023, more than half of South Koreans dislike Yoon’s deal.

Whether Yoon’s rapprochement will succeed will likely also depend on economic gains made from reopening all channels of trade to Japan. Economic performance tends to be one of the major means by which South Korean politicians’ performance are judged. The dictatorship of Park Chung-hee is remembered as a dark part of South Korean history for its human rights violations, but Park is also remembered as the president who unlocked South Korea’s economic potential and kick-started its immense growth. The South Korean economy has been struggling to grow in recent months, making this deal with Tokyo well-timed for Yoon. 

Most South Koreans take great interest in their economy. They are among the most prolific investors, with eight out of ten South Koreans between the age of 20 and 40 investing in stocks or other assets. Changes in the country’s stock indexes are part of daily news, which often feature the country’s export rates and growth figures. This will likely play into Yoon’s hands and could disarm his opponents, as trade with Japan is likely to trend upward again.

Even so, rapprochement could be an uphill battle for Yoon. Being a president in South Korea is a dangerous business. With the sole exception of previous President Moon Jae-in, all other South Korean presidents left off in prison, discredited or dead. Yoon, who won his presidency with the closest-ever margin of victory in South Korean history, has been generally unpopular since taking office. He will have to do most of the work needed to resolve existing wartime controversies with Japan himself, as he will not receive additional support from Seoul’s lawmakers or Tokyo’s political elite. 

The opposition, which still controls South Korea’s National Assembly, has been strongly opposed to the deal and will continue to politicize the matter. His Japanese counterpart will likely also play a minor role in resolving these bilateral wartime issues. A sincere apology delivered by the Japanese prime minister could likely solve much of Korean anger and pave the way for lasting and sustainable relations. But such an apology remains unlikely, given Kishida’s reliance on right-wing legislators, many of whom continue to deny that forced labor occurred at all under Japanese colonial rule. For now, the Japanese government has only agreed to reissue an apology from 1998 as part of the deal. 

Japan’s right-wing hawks could still do much to derail the rapprochement. Only days after the Yoon-Kishida meeting, Japan’s Ministry of Education approved several school textbooks that removed all references to comfort women, laid claim to disputed islands, and referred to Korean forced laborers simply as conscripts or omitted them altogether. To Yoon’s domestic critics, such acts are proof that the Japanese government cannot be trusted.  

Most in South Korea want better relations with Japan. The two countries’ shared democratic values, intertwined economies, similar security concerns, and strong relationship with the US make them natural allies. The current economic and geopolitical climate make lasting rapprochement between the governments likely. And Washington will continue pushing for a strong trilateral security alliance as a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. In the medium-term, this convergence of interests and momentum will likely lead to substantive improvements to ties in the diplomatic, economic and security domains for both South Korea and Japan.

However, Japan’s continuing refusal to take responsibility for its historical crimes will continue to remain a thorny issue in South Korea. The opposition in Seoul will likely continue to exploit this. Whether economic and security benefits of closer relations with Tokyo will be enough for South Koreans to leave the past behind, remains to be seen. President Yoon will continue to do his utmost for rapprochement to succeed. The outcome will likely define his legacy.