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Kishida-Yoon Summit Helps South Korea in Ambition to be a 'Global Pivotal State'

South Korea and Japan both highlighted the promotion of freedom, peace and prosperity, based on liberal democratic values, terms not heard often enough in Asia.



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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hold a joint press conference in Tokyo on March 16 (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Since Yoon Suk-yeol became the President of South Korea in May 2022, he has achieved several remarkable political feats. That is despite a previous lack of political experience.

His high level visit to Japan this week is a triumph and helps drive forward his ambition to expand and deepen South Korea's engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.

In fact, President Yoon and his dynamic foreign minister, Park Jin have coined a special phrase which they use to express their goal for South Korea to play a greater role in international affairs. They want it to be regarded as a "global pivotal state."

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South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida enter the prime minister's office on the afternoon of March 16 (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Democratic Values

Cooperation with other democracies is a critical part of that process. During the meetings between officials from South Korea and Japan which took place in Tokyo, the rhetoric from both sides highlighted the promotion of freedom, peace, and prosperity, based on liberal democratic values.

While those terms will be familiar to people in Japan, America and Europe they are not used with much frequency by the governments of many other countries in Asia.

A sure signal that a country is regarded as a "global pivotal state" is the role it plays in top level events. Mr Yoon, thanks in large part to his commitment to repair the relationship with Japan, is now much in favor with President Joe Biden, who has invited him to the White House for a prestigious state visit in April.


It is also highly likely that the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will ask President Yoon to attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May. That is even though South Korea is not formally a member of the group. In 2021, South Korea was a special guest at the G7 summit hosted by the United Kingdom in Cornwall

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife (right) and South Korean President Yun Suk-yeol and his wife (left) at dinner in Ginza, Tokyo on the evening of March 16 (provided by the Cabinet Public Relations Office)

United States' Satisfaction

America's approval of a strong trilateral relationship was emphasized during a phone conversation between the US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman and the Japanese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Takeo Mori. That call took place on March 15th.

Ms Sherman said that the United States will support Japan and South Korea as they "continue to take steps to translate this new understanding into enduring progress."

Wendy Sherman's carefully-worded phrase provides an indication of the challenges ahead. The left-wing opposition in South Korea did not support President Yoon's plan to ease historical tensions with Japan. In fact, one opposition leader branded the deal as the "biggest humiliation in our history."

The agreement removes any obligation on Japanese companies to put money into a fund ordered by the South Korean Supreme Court in 2018 to additionally compensate people who were employed by the Japanese side during Korea's period of Japanese colonial rule, nearly a century ago. Japan points out that it paid compensation for these and other claims under the 1965 treaty on basic relations and accompanying agreement which settled the claims "completely and finally" in 1965. 

Instead, Japanese and South Korean business lobbies will pay about $1.5 million USD into a pair of "future partnership" funds to collaborate on areas including youth exchanges, energy security and global supply chain issues. 

"The need for the two countries to cooperate has increased in the wake of COVID-19, deepening US-China competition and global weaponization of natural resources," Kim Byong-joon, acting chair of the Federation of Korean Industries, was quoted as saying by the Financial Times.

predictions tactical nuclear weapons ICBM South Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter attend a photo session with the new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in this undated photo released on November 27, 2022. (© KCNA via Reuters)

Security Priorities

Crucially, disagreements relating to history can now be dealt with separately to other pressing issues, such as regional security.  

South Korea has pledged to cooperate closely with the Quad, the informal defense pact which includes Japan, Australia, India and the United States. It is also keen to share more information with Japan about the threat posed by North Korea.

In 2019, when relations were in a poor state, Japan imposed export restrictions on chemicals which South Korea uses to build semiconductors. Korean diplomats who joined Mr Yoon on the trip to Tokyo this week said getting these sanctions lifted was a top priority, which would lead to economic benefits for both sides.

Compromises on such issues should be relatively straightforward for Japan, although a radar lock-on incident under Yoon's predecessor targeting a Japanese patrol plane has yet to be resolved. Nevertheless, the compromises should go down well with the United States, which is keen to smooth out the remaining problems between its key allies in the Indo-Pacific. 

Multilateral Player

South Korea recently became the first country in history to be upgraded by the United Nations from "developing" to "developed". At international events, the South Koreans often say that they understand the problems faced by poorer nations. 

South Korea also hosts important meetings, such as the UN Peacekeeping Ministerial which took place in Seoul December of 2022. And South Korea has also voted at the United Nations General Assembly condemning North Korea, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's treatment of people in the Xinjiang region.

Although its improved relationship with Japan should not be taken as a sign South Korea wishes to "decouple" from China, it does suggest that it admires other democracies and seeks to find common ground with them when possible. 



Author: Duncan Bartlett

Duncan Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. You can read his other articles and essays here.

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