Yoon and Kishida’s frenemy status over North Korean ambitions

  • Japanese Prime Minister Kishida met his South Korean counterpart Yoon in November 2022.
  • North Korea’s latest missile launches are reshaping Kishida’s ties with Yoon, changing the regional balance.
  • The two seek to relaunch relations between their countries to counter North Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol
首相官邸ホームページ, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why are Kishida and Yoon frenemies?

Answer: Historical events and a trade war have soured South Korea’s ties with Japan. Now, North Korea’s assertive role marks a new rapprochement between Kishida and Yoon.

As North Korea keeps testing its nuclear and military facilities, Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have moved to coordinate an answer and relaunch their bilateral ties. North Korea’s missile program is a paramount part of their agenda.

The two parties have found ways to improve a strained relationship marked by the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, especially the topic of Korean comfort women. Comfort women were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese Imperial Army troops during Japanese rule over Korea. Estimates of the number of women involved go up to 200,000

Following the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations, which was insufficient to mend the matter, Japan officially apologized in 2015 and promised to pay 1bn yen ($9.5m) to repay the victims. But the issue reared again in 2018, when South Korea’s top court ordered the Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy to compensate Koreans used for forced labor and ordered two other Japanese companies’ assets to be seized in South Korea. 

As a response in July 2019, Tokyo removed Seoul from a “white list” of countries accorded preferential treatment for export licensing, a huge blow to South Korea’s tech industry. Korea is the world’s second-largest semiconductor manufacturer, and Tokyo is the largest supplier of three paramount components for Seoul’s technological industry.

North Korea’s development of its domestic nuclear program and Su-yeol ‘s victory in the latest South Korean elections marks a new page in the bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan. 

In September 2022, both Yoon and Kishida agreed to activate diplomatic channels for continuous communication. Additionally, in November 2022, Yoon and Fumio Kishida set out to work toward an early settlement of issues over wartime forced labor, which was Korean individuals forced to work for Japan and Japanese companies during World War II. Thousands of Korean women were also forced to become sex workers, also known as “comfort women,” for Japan’s military during World War II.

Reparations for South Korean wartime victims caused diplomatic disagreements between Seoul and Tokyo for decades. Nevertheless, North Korea’s test missiles are a shared serious concern for both Yoon and Kishida and a driving factor in their relationship.

What is Driving Kishida?

Answer: Kishida seeks to denuclearize North Korea, while keeping a predominant technological role, especially in the semiconductor industry.

In October 2022, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile soaring over Japan for the first time in five years. Like Yoon, Kishida sees North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles as a threat. Furthermore, Pyongyang’s modernisation of its internal nuclear and missile arsenal poses the danger of a potential missile attack by North Korea which could not be intercepted in the event of armed conflict. 

The rising tensions in the Korean peninsula due to North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear program are reshaping Japan’s special interests over Japan’s economic dependence on China and South Korea. For instance, in 2021, China accounted for 22% of Japanese exports, while South Korea 7% of the total. Both China and South Korea are the first and third largest trade partners for Japan, which plays a relevant role in the Japanese economy. 

This is important for the Japanese economy for two reasons. Firstly,  more than 99% percent of Japan’s foreign trade is carried out by sea. At the same time, Tokyo depends overwhelmingly on fossil-fuel and LNG imports, basically supplied through the sea, to meet its energy needs. Therefore, military escalation on and around the Korean peninsula would seriously impose on Japanese trade.

This is important on the technological side. South Korea is the largest memory chip producer, while Japan is a key supplier of vital materials for South Korea’s chip manufacturing. 

Consequently, both South Korea and Japan share the same view on the technological supply chain. Consequently, Kishida has worked with the U.S. and other states like Taiwan and South Korea to ensure robust and trustworthy supply chains. 

In order for Kishida to minimize any potential crisis in the Korean peninsula, Kishida, alongside Yoon, joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The IPEF is expected to diversify and stabilize the supply chains of semiconductors, clean energy, key minerals and other items, and deepen cooperation with major regional players. This is key for Japan to ensure the current technological supply chain and to ensure its role as the 3rd largest electronics manufacturing industry.

What is Driving Yoon?

Answer: Yoon wants to maintain South Korea’s predominant role in technology and deepen ties with Japan.

During the last decades, both Seoul and Tokyo have experienced massive economic growth. In less than 30 years, Japanese suppliers and South Korea’s tech industry have become increasingly interdependent. Up to 43.9% of South Korea’s hydrogen fluoride, a key component in electronics, came from Japanese firms alone in 2018. 

Since the trade war between Japan and South Korea, Moon Jae In earmarked about 2 trillion won ($1.627 billion at current rate) to fund research and development of chipmaking materials to reduce Seoul’s technological dependency on Tokyo. However, South Korea’s top import by value from Japan, jumped 44% in the year to $6.3 billion in 2021. South Korea’s trade deficit with Japan has also widened compared to last year. 

Therefore, Yoon is looking to warm up ties with Tokyo due to the technological interdependence of both actors, while developing South Korea’s production of key minerals for its domestic technological industry. Furthermore, Seoul is pushing to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade deal led by Japan.

Additionally,  Yoon released a statement expressing desire to join the Quad. Even though Seoul is not currently part of Quad, its member states, including Japan, are considering allowing Seoul to be in a close association with the forum. South Korea shares many of the same interests as the Quad member countries (US, Japan, Australia and India) on healthcare, climate change, preventing economic coercion, establishing a rules-based order, and establishing high standards for investment. 

This closer association would allow Seoul to engage its military concerns via a regional grouping where all member states share similar geographic proximity and concern for the destabilizing force of a nuclear-armed North Korea. At the same time, it would grant Seoul a greater role in the Indo-Pacific region, thus enabling a faster response to future contingencies and serving as a deterrent to threats such as economic coercion.

What is Yoon Doing?

Answer: He has sought to restore and deepen ties with Japan to keep a harsh tone against North Korea and protect technological supply chains.

Yoon won the presidency in a tight election. One key point for Yoon’s electoral promise has been improving ties with Kishida. Consequently, Yoon has made steps to warm up ties with Kishida, both in the economy and military. On the military field, in September 2022, South Korean, U.S. and Japanese warships launched their first trilateral anti-submarine drills in five years. 

Additionally, in January 2023, the Ministry of National Defense of South Korea agreed to promote its security cooperation with Japan this year through joint missile-warning drills, antisubmarine and maritime interdiction exercises.

On the economic side, in order to de-escalate and solve this trade war, in November 2022, Yoon agreed with the Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida to work toward an early settlement of issues over wartime labor and disagreements. 

As a sign of settling this issue, Kishida does not discard an apology to its neighbors over past aggressions, as part of efforts to improve its ties with South Korea, if Seoul finalizes a solution to a wartime labor issue.

Through rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, Yoon and Kishida can assume a more significant role in regional security dynamics to counter North Korea and ensure Tokyo’s and Seoul’s technological supply chains.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Improving South Korea and Japan’s ties to counter North Korea will be paramount to avoid further regional and global escalation.

Both Kishida and Yoon share the same concern about Pyongyang’s actions. Former South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, approached North Korean issues as a peacemaker first. Since then, Yoon has made a U-turn, focusing on building up advanced missile programs to deter North Korea’s military tests. South Korea is the largest memory chip producer, while Japan is a key supplier of vital materials for South Korea’s chip manufacturing.

These chemicals are vital in creating semiconductors and display screens and are very important to companies like Samsung Electronics, LG Display, and SK Hynix. The three together supply over 60% of the components used in DRAM memory chips around the world. A warm-up between Japan and South Korea could decrease disruptions in the global electronics supply chain.