The Tokyo summit that brought together South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on March 23, 2023, cleared away much of the accumulated debris of the last five years of dysfunctionality.

The two-day official visit — the first by a South Korean president in a dozen years — checked off a substantial list of to-do items. It restored regular meetings between the leaders of the two countries and rolled back the tit-for-tat trade measures in place since 2019.

The two leaders embraced a shared security agenda, topped by countering North Korea, and reaffirmed the operation of the General Security of Military Information Agreement intelligence-sharing pact.

The stage is now set for a return to normalcy, or at least functionality, in South Korea-Japan relations. Looming over both leaders was the United States, their mutual ally. Biden administration officials have been pounding away at the need for trilateral cooperation, particularly in the security arena.

For Yoon, the Tokyo summit was a necessary precondition for a state visit to Washington next month.

US President Joe Biden speaks as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol listens during a news conference at the People’s House inside the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul’s Yongsan District, May 21, 2022. Photo: Twitter

But the visit also offered evidence that Seoul and Tokyo share a desire to push back against a drift towards Cold War-style confrontation and full-scale economic war, with the two leaders announcing the creation of a new dialogue on economic security and a desire to restore the trilateral summit dialogue with China.

All of this was made possible due to President Yoon’s politically risky decision to accept the failure in reaching a bilateral agreement with Japan on the thorny wartime issue of compensation for South Korean laborers forced to work in Japanese mines and factories without pay.

The primary driver of the recent downturn in South Korea–Japan relations was the Supreme Court of Korea’s decision in 2018 to order two Japanese firms — Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — to pay a handful of surviving laborers.

Months of negotiations at the ministerial level failed to bridge the gap on this issue. South Korea yielded to Japan’s insistence that it was legally not obliged to pay the forced laborers, as this issue had been settled by the Claims Agreement reached at the time of normalization of the two countries’ diplomatic relations in 1965. Seoul offered instead to use an existing fund for compensation, fed by contributions from POSCO and other South Korean firms.

But the South Korean government pushed for the two Japanese firms to offer voluntary contributions to that fund in addition to their own statement of apology, in the hope that it would be echoed by Prime Minister Kishida. This push was rightfully seen as key to gaining the acceptance of the victims, their lawyers and the public.

Prime Minister Kishida balked at crossing that Rubicon. He is wary of bilateral agreements on historical issues due to the controversies that arose from the 2015 compensation and apology deal for South Korean “comfort women” that he reached as foreign minister. And Kishida is under heavy pressure from Japanese conservatives who oppose any concession on history.

In his statement at a joint press conference, Kishida issued no clear expression of his own about the troubled past and ruled out any Japanese moves to reimburse the workers, even indirectly.

This morally murky response from Japan has fed those in South Korea who see this as a surrender. Polls show that a significant majority of South Koreans want the Japanese firms to join in and apologize.

The opposition Democratic Party has assailed the outcome and has organized loud and somewhat ritualized public protests. Though there is a clear desire in South Korea to move away from the past, even supporters of Yoon’s policy express dismay at Japan’s lack of courage.

Former Korean ambassador to Tokyo Shin Kak-Soo expressed his disappointment with “the timidity from the Japanese government to respond to the bold initiative by President Yoon, who risked his political fortune.” Shin continued, “At least the Prime Minister should have made a sincere and concrete apology.”

Comfort women statues like this pair in a Shanghai park have been raised globally by South Korean civic groups. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

There is some hope that Kishida will use the opportunity of a visit to South Korea later this year as a moment to step forward. Yoon has made efforts to sell reconciliation in Japan by meeting with two conservative Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts, Taro Aso and former prime minister Yoshihide Suga. But so far, Kishida seems unable or unwilling to reciprocate.

Lurking behind all this is the possibility that these legal issues may not be fully resolved by a unilaterally created fund. A few of the 15 litigants in the Nippon Steel case are refusing to accept payments from that fund.

And beyond them are other suits that have been filed against a larger set of Japanese companies, one of them being a class action style suit on behalf of potentially almost 1,000 surviving laborers and their descendants against more than 60 Japanese firms.

But while the resolution of these suits will require substantial funds, there is a readiness to accept a settlement, according to some of the lawyers representing the victims. Most of the 15 litigants in the Supreme Court case have privately agreed to the settlement.

“They want to embrace the settlement, especially with the enhancement of an apology,” says Robert Swift, the lead counsel for the larger class action suit and co-counsel for other suits now pending. “It’s actually very simple — the foundation will have the money, the foundation will pay the money, and the claimants will dismiss their litigation.”

President Yoon has offered his own full-throated defense of his policy, declaring that “the necessity of cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is ever increasing” amid global issues such as escalating US-China tensions, supply chain disruptions and North Korean nuclear threats.

The door to rapprochement and normalization of South Korea–Japan relations has been opened — and there is a clear way to pave the road forward so that it can withstand coming storms. But the perils of reversal remain. For now, it is Kishida who bears the responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Daniel Sneider is a lecturer on international policy and East Asian studies at Stanford University and a non-resident distinguished fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @DCSneider

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished with permission.