The Kishida-Yoon Summit 2023: Expectations Might Be High, Yet Process Seems Lenghty

The Kishida-Yoon Summit 2023:  Expectations Might Be High, Yet Process Seems Lenghty


On March 16, Yoon Suk-yeol, President of the Republic of Korea, landed in Tokyo for a two-day Summit with Fumio Kishida, Prime Minister of Japan. The two leaders’ meeting is truly historical: it is the first high-level Summit held between the leaders of the two neighboring states in the past 12 years, a dimension also noted by President Yoon in one of his tweets. The previous Summit dates back to December 2011, when the then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak met the Japanese Premier Yoshihiko Noda in Kyoto.

Naturally, as many bilateral relationships of neighbor states, the Republic of Korea-Japan relations have not lacked certain effervescent aspects, both of historical as well as current nature. Moreover, provided the lack of reciprocal high-level visits in more than a decade, a diminished mutual trust must have built up. Despite attempts to rekindle the bilateral ties by shuttle diplomacy, in the past 12 years, no bilateral Summits came to fruition. According to analysts, the rapprochement between late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been delicate. Park’s successor, President Moon Jae-in visited Japan to attend a G20 Summit in Osaka in 2019, however did not meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sideline of the event.

One could ask himself which might be the explanation of the moment for both sides to take such a sudden and important decision. The answer, most probably, comes from the fact that the two countries started a new political and strategic policy led by new leaders at helm and new and complex circumstances and developments in the Indo-Pacific region.

At the same time, the recent alliances and formats of cooperation, in which Washington is acting as main coagulator, to be fully efficient needs a very solid bilateral understandings between all participants in the current rapid consolidating defense equation between USA, Japan, United Kingdom, Australia and Republic of Korea. By a careful reading of the documents and statements released on the summit results that, indeed, the defense and security have been on the top of the agenda of the official talks. It is not a surprise. The arms race, even though dangerous, is in fact the characteristic of an international tendency in almost every corner of the world, particularly in Europe and Asia. The additional and most lately ignition spark is the illegal aggression turned to real war of Russia on Ukraine.

In a very clear manner, the two East Asian leaders in their statements “confirmed the importance of further reinforcing the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. Alliance and ROK-U.S. Alliance and of vigorously promoting security cooperation both between Japan and the ROK and among Japan, the ROK, and the U.S. In fact, the Biden administration has commended the Summit between two of the United States’ closest allies in the region. Both the White House and the State Department released statements praising the “historic announcements” and the “groundbreaking new chapter” between Republic of Korea and Japan. Indeed, on a security level, the meeting could be crucial in reinforcing the current Indo-Pacific Strategy, though no direct references have been made to either “Free or Open Indo-Pacific” of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy”per se.

After this very important and significant summit, which signals a rivival in the bilateral relationship, opening the beginning of a lengthier process of their enhancement, Japan and Republic of Korea came out with a solid bilateral engagement for future bilateral and regional developments.

According to Kishida, “Cherry blossoms just started blooming in Tokyo this week, and after a long winter season, in terms of our bilateral relations, Japan is now able to welcome the President of South Korea for the first time in 12 years.”

His South Korean counterpart further commented that the Summit “has special significance as it shows the people of both countries that South Korea-Japan relations are off to a new beginning after being plagued by various issues.”President Yoon further added that the two countries “share same democratic values” and “are partners that must cooperate on security, economic issues and global agendas.”

Based on the press statement of Premier Kishida, the two leaders “were in full agreement that the strengthening of Japan-ROK relations is a matter of pressing urgency in the current strategic environment”, hence the need to “further develop Japan-ROK relations” and “restart shuttle diplomacy with the leaders of our nations each frequently visiting the other's country, regardless of the form in which those visits take place.”

President Yoon pointed out that the announcement to the people of both nations of “a new start” in the relations between Republic of Korea and Japan, “the closest neighbors that share universal values, is meaningful.” President Yoon added that the two leaders “agreed to speed up talks on boosting cooperation in diverse sectors like national security, economy, and human and cultural exchanges. The National Security Council will launch bilateral dialogue on economy and national security.”

Despite the very warm statements, an expressive joint press-conference held by the two leaders and the obvious mutual benefit of the two parties and their current partners with a vested interest in the Indo-Pacific architecture, no joint statement has been released, perhaps indicating that a comprehensive answer to the bilateral issues is yet to be found.

It is notably important that the press statements released by both leaders do not indicate the harmonization of the two countries’ relations could be directed against any third party.

Apparently less emphasis on security, Premier Kishida and President Yoon “agreed on the importance of relaunching the high-level Japan-ROK-China trilateral process at an early time.”

Held regularly between 2008 and 2019, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China (Prime-minister level), Japan (Prime-minister level) and Republic of Korea (President level) met in a trilateral format in Fukuoka, Japan and Chengdu, China. Perhaps in the light of the geo-strategic complexities, e.g. the emerging U.S.-China competition, the Japan- ROK bilateral dossier, or the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trilateral Summit has been temporarily suspended.

According to the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China hopes that the “Japan-ROK ties will move forward in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity”, noting that “China, Japan and the ROK are each other’s important trade partners. To keep industrial and supply chains stable and unfettered is in the interest of all three countries and the entire region.”

However, only one day after the Summit ended, China Marine Police spokesperson Gan Yu has been reported saying that the Chinese “coast guard vessels entered the waters of Diaoyu [concurrently claimed by both Japan and China] for a normal rights protection patrol”, calling it a “routine move”. According to the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, “Chinese coast guard vessels carried out law enforcement on the scene in accordance with the law, it is a legitimate measure to safeguard Chinese sovereignty.”

It seems that there was no official declaration from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the summit between the Republic of Korea and Japan. Shortly before Yoon's departure from Japan, Pyongyang launched an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.

Concluding, it is to be noted the merit and the outstanding statesmanship exercised by both President Yoon and Premier Kishida, who have reached a significant milestone in stimulating the bilateral relations between their two countries. Shall this revival gain momentum and grow beyond a singular bilateral Summit between Japan and the Republic of Korea, the March 2023 meeting could remain in history as the decisive moment for both countries to start to reignite their active and conciliatory dialogue. So far, the signals received from both countries seem to indicate the Yoon-Kishida meeting is far from a singular bilateral high-level visit: President Yoon has already received an official invitation on behalf of Premier Kishida to G7 Summit to be hosted in May by Japan. The Korean side further stated that the invitation represents "a positive measure following the result of the Korea-Japan summit."

It is not unlikely that historical matters will resurface in ROK-Japan relations, but the diplomatic demarches between the two countries and the steps taken by their two respective leaders provide the golden opportunity to strengthen the cooperation between the two peoples.

The multiplication of such demarches in the region and beyond – amid a sea of geopolitical rivalry and competition – could only be welcomed.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.