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What Does South Korea-Japan Rapprochement Mean?

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Tokyo at the official invitation of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on March 17, 2023, and the two leaders agreed to end historical disagreements.[1] Shortly before this meeting, South Korea announced that it would pay compensation to workers forced into labor during the Second World War, in an effort to end its strained relations with Japan.[2] After this proposal, the Tokyo administration took action to improve bilateral relations with Seoul, and bilateral disagreements were largely overcome at the summit. The parties have also restarted the security meetings that have been suspended in recent years.

The said development may create a serious break in the regional security balances. Because, a significant change is expected in the foreign policy and security strategies of South Korea, which has solved its problems with Japan. Tokyo, taking Seoul with it, wants to form a united front against Beijing and Pyongyang. In fact, this is the strategy of the United States of America (USA). Japan and South Korea are just tools in the US strategy to encircle China. If South Korea begins to act together with Japan, China will become even more isolated in the region. The main goal here is; It is the establishment of an alliance between the USA, Japan and South Korea. It can be said that Washington is getting closer and closer to these goals. The only obstacle to this is the aforementioned historical disagreements between South Korea and Japan. The summit dated March 17, 2023 can be interpreted as the two countries’ solving their historical problems and the strengthening and officialization of the alliance between the USA-South Korea and Japan in the Asia-Pacific.

Before analyzing the changes that can be seen in South Korea’s foreign and security policy, it will be useful to reveal the developments at the regional level in recent months. After the national security strategy documents published by the White House in October 2022 and the Tokyo Government in December of the same year, the Seoul administration published an Indo-Pacific Strategy Document for the first time on December 28, 2022.[3] Therefore, it can be argued that the pressure and direction of the USA was effective in the publication of this document. Despite this, South Korea made little mention of China in its new Indo-Pacific strategy. This is because China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, has a large military capacity, and has the potential to cooperate with North Korea. Due to these major military threats right next to it, South Korea has pursued a policy of balance between China and the USA for many years.

In the strategy document it published, South Korea emphasized that it is at the center of “three major threats (Russia, North Korea and China)”.[4] That’s why the Seoul administration refrains from making moves that will deepen the crisis in the region. South Korea, in particular, thinks that there is no way to resist North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the Chinese Army. In general, Seoul thinks that support for Washington-led alliances in the region could lead to a major war. Still, the Seoul government must cooperate to the maximum extent with Tokyo and Washington in order to deal with the “three major threats”. This is why; South Korea has recently announced that they are planning to cooperate with the United States in order to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and that they have held talks on this.[5] Again in this process, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, visited South Korea and Japan and gave a message of support for the fight against threats such as China, North Korea and Russia.

Therefore, it is possible to say that South Korea has recently begun to change its military-security policies. This change actually started with the election of Yoon Suk Yeol as President in May 2022. The Seoul administration quickly restored relations with Washington. After that, South Korea started military exercises with both the USA and Japan in its close vicinity. For the last year, the USA has succeeded in bringing together the two countries, which have historical conflicts, in the face of “common threats”. In this context, there is an important axis shift in South Korea’s foreign and security policy. Seoul is increasingly making itself the target of Beijing. In other words, the Seoul administration, which has avoided confronting China as much as possible until today, may soon begin to confront Beijing.

While the US’s strategy to encircle China is gaining momentum; Actors such as South Korea, India, Australia, Philippines, Singapore and Japan have difficulties in maintaining regional balances. Forced to a choice between China or the USA, the regional states strive to maintain the rules-based order. The thought that war may break out in Taiwan after Ukraine pushes states to take security measures against this danger. Disputes between South Korea and Japan are seen as a factor that complicates and even deepens the resolution of security problems in the region. Although the two countries are located on the democratic axis of the West, they have difficulty in coming together. The aforementioned states have deep commercial ties with Beijing. So even if Seoul-Tokyo relations improve, it is difficult for it to become a united front against Beijing. As regional polarization deepens, South Korea is being pulled into this vortex.

South Korea’s rapprochement with Japan is interpreted as the strengthening of the “democratic front” against China and North Korea, which are positioned as so-called “authoritarian regimes”. These two countries feel the need to get support from Western great powers in order to eliminate the threats in their immediate surroundings. The method of establishing military alliances to ensure their national security causes the opposing bloc to increase its military power. Western great powers consider it inevitable to cooperate with actors such as Japan and South Korea in order to advance their interests in the Asia-Pacific. There is a danger that proxy wars will spread to the Asia-Pacific after the Middle East and Europe. The regional states that have to choose a certain bloc are being dragged into the war without realizing it. South Korea has also failed to stay away from bloc politics. Therefore, it would come as no surprise that Seoul would sail towards new alliances with Washington in the near future.


[1] “Japan, South Korea Move to Mend Ties At Landmark Summit”, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/17/japan-south-korea-move-to-mend-ties-at-landmark-summit, (Date of Accession: 23.03.2023).

[2] “Japan PM Wants Summit with South Korea Next Week, Says Junior Coalition Party Head”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-pm-wants-summit-with-south-korea-next-week-says-junior-coalition-party-2023-03-07/, (Date of Accession: 23.03.2023).

[3] Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”, The Government of Republic of Korea, https://www.mofa.go.kr/viewer/skin/doc.html?fn=20221228060752073.pdf&rs=/viewer/result/202212, (Date of Accession: 23.03.2023).

[4] Strategy for a Free…”, op.cit.

[5] “South Korea Says Talks Underway on U.S. Nuclear Operations Planning”, Nikkei, https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/N-Korea-at-crossroads/South-Korea-says-talks-underway-on-U.S.-nuclear-operations-planning, (Date of Accession: 23.03.2023).

Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk TAMER
Dr. Cenk Tamer graduated from Sakarya University, Department of International Relations in 2014. In the same year, he started his master's degree at Gazi University, Department of Middle Eastern and African Studies. In 2016, Tamer completed his master's degree with his thesis titled "Iran's Iraq Policy after 1990", started working as a Research Assistant at ANKASAM in 2017 and was accepted to Gazi University International Relations PhD Program in the same year. Tamer, whose areas of specialization are Iran, Sects, Sufism, Mahdism, Identity Politics and Asia-Pacific and who speaks English fluently, completed his PhD education at Gazi University in 2022 with his thesis titled "Identity Construction Process and Mahdism in the Islamic Republic of Iran within the Framework of Social Constructionism Theory and Securitization Approach". He is currently working as an Asia-Pacific Specialist at ANKASAM.