By Tongfi Kim
The governments of South Korea and Japan announced today that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will visit South Korea on May 7 and 8 to meet with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Their discussions will likely focus on security cooperation against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, economic security, and South Korea’s plan to compensate victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor through a South Korea-funded foundation. President Yoon has also been invited to attend the G7 summit meeting in Hiroshima, Japan from May 19 to 21, where the leaders of both countries will participate in a trilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.
What is the significance of Kishida’s visit to South Korea?
The significance of Kishida’s visit to South Korea lies in the two governments’ efforts to improve bilateral relations. The visit follows President Yoon’s trip to Japan in March, where both leaders agreed to restart the so-called “shuttle diplomacy,” involving regular meetings between the two countries’ leaders. Although the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited South Korea for the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics in February 2018, the last visit of a Japanese prime minister to South Korea as part of the “shuttle diplomacy” took place in October 2011.
President Yoon has faced domestic criticism for his conciliatory gestures towards Japan. A Korea Gallup poll in March 2023 showed that 59% of South Korean respondents opposed the government’s plan to compensate wartime forced labor victims, while 35% supported it. Kishida’s visit, scheduled ahead of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, highlights the Japanese government’s readiness to accelerate the rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo. This is a welcome development, as the Japanese side has been less enthusiastic about improving bilateral ties than the South Korean government since the beginning of the Yoon administration.
While pessimism often prevails among observers of Korea-Japan relations, Kishida’s visit to South Korea provides a basis for cautious optimism. On one hand, President Yoon’s low approval rating and public opinion against improving ties with Japan impose domestic constraints on the relationship. Conservative politicians in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will also limit the extent to which Kishida can make concessions to South Korea on historical disputes. However, on the other hand, President Yoon’s vulnerability, along with his amicable stance towards Washington and Tokyo, is appreciated by the United States and Japan. Washington and Tokyo, therefore, are likely to be more supportive of Yoon, hoping to work towards improving U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation on security and economic issues.
By reinstating “shuttle diplomacy,” President Yoon will achieve a significant diplomatic victory before his first year in office concludes, which leaves four years to the South Korean president, who has only one term. Barring diplomatic “accidents” due to careless mistakes, Kishida’s visit to South Korea will have a positive impact on the bilateral relationship and pave the way for deepening U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation in the coming months.