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Historic Reconciliation Earns South Korean and Japanese Leaders the Prestigious Profile in Courage Award

Asia Japan Korea

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeoul and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida were given the Profile in Courage Award for bridging the divide between their two countries, despite longstanding disputes that have strained their relations.

In a ceremony that pays homage to John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, the JFK Library and Museum will present the annual Profile in Courage Award on October 29, 2023. Reserved for elected officials and public servants who exhibit outstanding bravery, often at the risk of their own careers, this accolade celebrates those who rise above political pressures to champion the greater good, such as President Barack Obama, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, and President George H.W. Bush. This year, the spotlight shines on President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan. This is because of their joint efforts in bridging deep-seated disputes between their countries, highlighting their commitment to peace and unity. The renewed bilateral ties and the shared goal of bolstering trilateral relations with the United States after the Camp David Summit underscores the spirit of the Profile in Courage Award.

Historical & Contemporary Disputes

Japan and South Korea have a fraught relationship characterized by historical and contemporary grievances. The colonization of the Korean Peninsula by Japan from 1910 to World War II remains the primary area of contention, as many Koreans do not believe Japan has sincerely apologized for atrocities related to forcing women into sexual slavery and men into fighting for the Imperial Japanese Army. Japan has issued numerous apologetic statements, including the landmark 1998 joint declaration between Tokyo and Seoul, where former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said, “I feel acute remorse and offer an apology from my heart” over colonial rule. However, South Koreans remain skeptical of these claims as sincere due to contrarian statements and actions from Japanese officials and politicians.

The issue is further compounded by how South Korea and Japan have different perceptions on whether past bilateral agreements ‘settled’ issues around colonization. Japanese politicians often claim these issues were settled under a bilateral accord signed in 1965 when diplomatic ties were normalized. However, in 2011, a top South Korean court deemed it unconstitutional for the government to make “no tangible effort” to settle disputes with Japan over its refusal to compensate women mobilized as sex slaves during the colonization period. Japan eventually responded in 2015, agreeing to establish a joint foundation which would pay $8.3 million to fund the care of surviving comfort women. However, South Korean President Moon Jae-In shut down this foundation and the South Korean top court ordered Japanese companies to compensate 15 forced laborers in 2018. Both these developments outraged Japan, causing bilateral cooperation on trade and national security to fray significantly. Other longstanding disputes, such as territorial issues regarding the Liancourt Rocks and cultural problems revolving around the repatriation of cultural items, have also contributed to an underlying strain. The ongoing tension has hindered collaboration between the two countries, even though they have shared concerns on issues ranging from North Korea to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Recent Efforts Towards Bilateral Reconciliation

South Korea and Japan have taken monumental steps in recent months to fortify their bilateral relations and mend these historical rifts. This year, the two nations conducted “shuttle-diplomacy;” March saw South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visiting Tokyo, marking the first visit by a South Korean leader to Japan in 12 years. This gesture of diplomacy was reciprocated in May when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida became the first Japanese Prime Minister in over a decade to set foot on South Korean soil. Moreover, the G7 summit hosted by Japan in Hiroshima also served as a platform for strengthening ties, with President Yoon being invited. These meetings signify the two nations' commitment to building a “future-oriented” bilateral relationship.

This recent rapprochement has been motivated by increasing shared security and economic concerns. Firstly, North Korea launching numerous missiles and becoming closer with increasingly hostile nations such as Russia has alarmed both nations. Likewise, China has become more assertive in the region and more brazen with its retaliatory measures. For example, bilateral ties sank between South Korea and China when South Korea installed a missile battery employing the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD). China retaliated by suspending Chinese group tours to South Korea and obliterating Chinese business for South Korean supermarket giant Lotte. For Japan, disputes with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and critical earth minerals have made it more cautious of the country. Such issues, among others, have caused Japanese and Korean public opinion towards China to plummet. These national security concerns certainly motivated South Korea and Japan to host their first strategic dialogue in nine years.

Furthermore, the conflict in Europe has led to fluctuations in energy prices, and the increased imposition of sanctions and export controls on major economies like Russia and China has caused significant disruptions in global supply chains. In this volatile environment, South Korea and Japan have grown closer economically, as evidenced by numerous recent actions, including restoring each other on their export “whitelists” and Japan announcing its decision to remove export controls levied against South Korea on certain chemicals needed to produce semiconductors.

Camp David Summit & Ensuring A Durable Political Partnership

The recent Camp David Summit, engaging leaders from the United States, Japan, and South Korea, aimed to buoy aforementioned bilateral momentum and fortify trilateral diplomatic ties. With a focus on defense and economic partnerships, the summit has already showcased outcomes beneficial to the United States. For example, through the formal "Commitment to Consult", trilateral communication about regional issues in the Indo-Pacific is expected to enhance. A significant part of this commitment involves annual trilateral leadership meetings, including between foreign ministers, finance ministers, and national security advisors. Such consultations will help coordinate issues related to cybersecurity and developmental finance – both issues the United States has sought to focus on in recent years. Similarly, this provides the United States with a stronger position to deter threats from China and North Korea.

Additionally, the summit's focus on technology research and critical mineral partnerships could help the three nations secure supply chains and counter China's growing tech influence. Scientific partnerships were also announced, including trilateral cooperation on Cancer Moonshot – a US initiative aiming to reduce death rates from cancer through treatment discovery. Such varied collaborations represent significant strides in promoting the interests of all three nations.

The core goal for the United States at Camp David was to institutionalize trilateral coordination such that future leadership in all countries is committed to maintaining communications and partnerships. This is a challenge, as public opinion in South Korea has largely disapproved of President Yoon’s approach to Japan. The United States has a presidential election in 2024, making it questionable whether the same level of coordination would be maintained under a new administration. South Korea and Japan have also had acute disputes over the recent Fukushima water release. The most critical time for political settlements to institutionalize can be the first few years, and there is much uncertainty lingering.

Nevertheless, within the context of their respective domestic political landscapes, President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida have made bold decisions. The Camp David summit, along with ongoing dialogues, holds substantial promise for the collective benefit of all three nations, provided these initiatives keep momentum. In recognition of their fortitude in the face of exceptional political adversities, they will be bestowed with the Profile in Courage Award.

SeungHwan (Shane) Kim is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, where he is focusing on security and statecraft in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.