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Japan, South Korea look to repair ties ahead of Biden visit

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a press conference on March 20, 2022, in Seoul, South Korea. (Jung Yeon-Je/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Japan and South Korea look set to try to revive a relationship that has hit new depths in recent years, with President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol offering an olive branch to Tokyo weeks before U.S. President Joe Biden is likely to visit both countries.

A group of South Korean lawmakers and policy experts dispatched by Yoon arrived in Tokyo on Sunday for five days of meetings with officials including Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Yonhap News Agency said. Yoon has already sent a delegation to the U.S. and will next send envoys to China before his inauguration.

Warming ties between the two U.S. allies would be a welcome development for the Biden administration as it seeks cooperation from Seoul and Tokyo to counter security threats posed by China and North Korea, while securing supply chains for key goods such as semiconductors free from interference from Beijing.

Yoon, a conservative, has signaled he wants to take a hawkish diplomatic course, which would also be in line with some of the security priorities of the conservative government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The new leadership in Seoul may offer a chance to inch back relations to something more like normal, with the war in Ukraine providing a reminder to both countries of their reliance on their mutual ally amid growing regional threats.

“Under the Yoon administration, we can see a way forward to restoring ties,” said Yasuyo Sakata, a professor at Kanda University of Foreign Studies in Chiba, Japan, who specializes in East Asian security, adding there will be chances to show that the neighbors “are more on the same wavelength.”

The delegation’s visit to Japan is set for a month before Biden — a staunch advocate of alliances — is expected to arrive in the region and visit both South Korea and Japan. It also comes weeks after North Korea for the first time since 2017 fired off a missile with a range that could hit the U.S. mainland and as it looks set to conduct its first nuclear test in nearly five years.

Ties between Tokyo and Seoul plunged to their worst state in decades under outgoing President Moon Jae-in — a progressive — and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a conservative — over whether Tokyo had shown proper contrition and sufficiently compensated for its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. That led to strains in security cooperation and trade ties between the two countries that host the bulk of U.S. troops in the region.

“Yoon realizes the U.S. is needed for South Korea’s security, and therefore the need to mend ties with another major U.S. ally in the region: Japan,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul. “The question is whether to prioritize history or security — and Yoon is likely to prioritize the latter, given his vows during the election campaign and his actions after the victory.”

But there are limits to how close Yoon can get after his two conservative predecessors as president faced backlash at home for being seen as being too accommodating to Japan, which caused sharp falls in support and hampered their policy agendas. Yoon can’t afford any missteps as he enters office with some of the lowest approval levels for a new South Korean president and faces a parliament where his progressive opponents hold a supermajority.

Japan would like to see a halt to compensation cases brought over Korean workers conscripted to work in Japanese factories and mines during the colonial period, but any attempts by Yoon to intervene could be seen as threatening the judiciary’s independence and further undermine support for his government.

Yoon’s camp has indicated it may seek a two-track approach with Japan — trying to improve cooperation on security, while pressing Tokyo to show what Seoul sees as greater accountability for widespread harm to millions of Koreans before and during World War II.

Kishida was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Yoon on his victory and has repeatedly said since then that good ties with Seoul are “indispensable in realizing a rules-based international order and ensuring peace.”

Yet it remains unclear whether Kishida will meet the South Korean delegation this week, or what level of envoy he will send to Yoon’s inauguration — another event that could help set the tone for ties with his new counterpart.

Kyodo News reported Friday that Kishida is likely to meet the delegation and may discuss the possibility of attending the inauguration. Yoon’s delegation is carrying a personal letter from him to Kishida, Yonhap said.

“Moon’s position was the Japanese government’s worst nightmare,” said Lauren Richardson, director of the Australian National University’s Japan Institute. “The Japanese side are being very cautious until they have some concrete indication that Yoon’s position will represent a departure.”

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