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Japan-South Korean diplomatic ice melting fast

South Korea's President and Japan's Prime Minister on Stage in Tokyo

South Korea's President and Japan's Prime Minister on Stage in Tokyo


On Sunday, Fumio Kishida will become the first Japanese PM to visit South Korea in five years. Kishida’s trip comes less than two months after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol went to Tokyo. The two neighbors are trying to end decades of tensions over Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945) … with weeks of shuttle diplomacy.

Why now? Both US allies have a mutual interest in countering the threat of an increasingly aggressive North Korea, investing jointly in strategic sectors like semiconductors, and making their supply chains less dependent on China. In a nutshell: This is good for Joe Biden, bad for Xi Jinping.

But to really patch things up, Yoon needs a favor. He knows that most South Koreans believe that his recent deal with Kishida to compensate victims of Japan’s forced labor camps didn't go far enough in holding Tokyo accountable for its colonial-era abuses because it whitewashed the role of Japanese companies that benefited from the free labor.

Kishida has long wanted to win South Korean hearts and minds but is uneasy about making his zaibatsus (financial and industrial conglomerates) pick up part of the reparations tab. Still, now that Japan’s PM is starting to get his mojo back after months of polling in the red, perhaps Kishida can afford to spend some political capital on doing Yoon a solid by “encouraging” Japanese big biz to donate to the fund.

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