The South Korea-Japan relationship has been bad for years, but there are signs it could warming

The South Korea-Japan relationship has been bad for years, but there are signs it could warming

Plus: Chile’s leftist president has a decision to make

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Today’s briefing is a ~5.0 min read:

  • 🕊️ Japan-South Korea relations: healing the rift will benefit both countries.
  • ➕ Plus: Mexico’s military was hacked, Peru turns to bird poo, and Chile’s Senate approved the CPTPP trade agreement, but will President Boric sign on?

The case for a Japan-South Korea rapprochement

In brief:

  • South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agree that their countries should work on mending their relationship.
  • The historical grievances between Seoul and Tokyo will be difficult to overcome, but in an increasingly dangerous region, closer bilateral ties promise significant economic and security benefits for both countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (L) and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (R) will have to confront the historical grievances between their two countries before a true mending of bilateral ties.

Making an effort

The relationship between South Korea and Japan is – to put it mildly – complicated. But recently, there have been encouraging signs that the two countries are willing to work on improving their ties.

  • North Korea’s latest missile tests (which Kim Jong-un delightfully said were “practice for tactical nuclear strikes on South Korea”) prompted South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to pick up the phone and discuss regional security with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
  • The leaders expressed hope that the relationship between their two countries will “return to the good old days”.

Of course, most of the bad blood between Japan and South Korea comes from the old days, which were certainly not good.

Historical hostilities

Between 1910 and 1945, Japan ruled over the Korean Peninsula as an imperial power and committed atrocities against its native population, including forced labour and large-scale sexual slavery.

  • Many Koreans believe Japan’s crimes have yet to be fully addressed, and in 2018 South Korea’s top court ordered two Japanese corporations to pay compensation to surviving Korean forced labourers.

Japan vehemently opposed all such directives and responded by removing South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners.

As we said, the relationship is complicated.

Mutual advantages to be had

Generally speaking, mending relations with a regional partner is a good idea, but in this case, rapprochement would also have specific geopolitical advantages.

1. 🔒 Regional security 

Japan and South Korea are both US allies, but their often frosty relationship has hindered deeper security collaboration through the years.

  • For example, Japan doesn’t send observers to US-South Korea military exercises, and South Korea doesn’t send observers to US-Japan exercises, even though each country would be expected to collaborate in a regional conflict.

According to analyst Jessie Laufer:

“Tokyo and Seoul should leverage the acute security threat posed by North Korea to implement incremental policies that institutionalize existing frameworks for security cooperation.”

2. 💰 Economic

South Korea and Japan have been caught up in the aforementioned trade dispute since 2019, which some analysts have called the lowest point in the relationship in more than 50 years.

  • Nonetheless, the two countries remain important trading partners, and improving their economic relationship could achieve more than financial benefits:

“In an era of supply chain disruptions and growing economic nationalism, restoring Japan and South Korea’s frayed trade relationship is critical to the global economy.”

Professor Gregg Brazinsky, East Asia expert

But it won’t be easy

There is too much history for the South Korea-Japan relationship to thaw overnight. It will take time and willingness to forgive, if not forget, the past.

But to the extent that bilateral relationships between countries start with people-to-people relationships, there are positive signs:

In a region that is becoming increasingly volatile, South Korea and Japan appear to understand that they have much to gain by working together.

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The Americas

🇦🇷 Argentina

President Albert Fernandez has named three new cabinet members in yet another cabinet reshuffle.

  • The shake-up follows Martin Guzman’s resignation in July – Guzman was Argentina’s fourth Economy Minister in as many years.
  • President Fernandez’s government has struggled to rein in inflation and meet its IMF loan obligations, leading to bitter political infighting between the President and his powerful Vice-President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

🇭🇹 Haiti

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a coalition of international security forces to help manage violent clashes between anti-government protestors and police in Port Au Prince.

  • In recent months, organised gangs have seized critical infrastructure and stolen aid supplies like food and clean water, leading to a growing cholera outbreak.
  • Though Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry requested the support, many Haitians are wary of welcoming Western militaries back to the island after multiple US-led occupations during the 20th century.

🇲🇽 Mexico

Members of Mexico’s military sold weapons to cartels, according to a trove of more than four million documents obtained by hacking group Guacamaya.

  • Other documents detail failures to punish perpetrators of sexual assault and interventions to protect officials implicated in the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.
  • The leak also revealed that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has expanded the military’s public security role during his tenure, suffers from a previously-undisclosed heart condition.

🇵🇪 Peru

They say some industries are recession-proof: the public sector, the booze business, and in Peru, the collection and distribution of bird poop.

  • The Russo-Ukraine War has significantly hampered global fertiliser production, leading some brave Peruvians to harvest guano, a potent and affordable alternative to the manufactured stuff.
  • The global food insecurity crisis is especially acute in Peru, where the UN has designated more than half of the population at risk of food insecurity.

🇵🇷 Puerto Rico

Tens of thousands in the US territory of Puerto Rico remain without power several weeks after Hurricane Fiona made landfall on 18 September.

  • To make matters worse, a diesel fuel shortage means residents, hospitals, and businesses have struggled to power emergency generators.
  • LUMA Energy has managed power distribution on the island since the industry was privatised last year, but some lawmakers have accused the company of mismanagement and price gouging.

Will Chile sign on to the CPTPP free trade agreement?


Years in the making: Chilean lawmakers have voted to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) free trade agreement after four years of intense debate.

  • Now the only thing missing from the agreement is the autograph of leftist Chilean President Gabriel Boric, although he is unlikely to be in a rush to put pen to paper.

Some context: The catchily-named CPTPP is an 11-member free trade agreement that arose from the ashes of the original ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ deal killed off by former-US President Donald Trump.

  • Over the years, the CPTPP has been criticised by those wary of the negative impacts of liberalised trade, which explains why confirming it isn’t Boric’s first priority.

Why it matters: Once officially a member, Chile will gain access to a free trade area that encompasses 13% of the global economy, while the other CPTPP members will get reciprocal benefits with Chile.

  • But that’s not all: Wendy Cutler, Vice President at the Asia Society Policy Institute, points out that Chile will now get to vote on who else gets to join:

“Following Malaysia earlier this month, Chile gets closer to CPTPP ratification. By ratifying, CPTPP members have a vote on accession partners. This gets interesting with the UK talks in final stages, and others in line, including China.”

There are more in line: The CPTPP’s economic benefits have attracted the attention of several additional countries including China, Ecuador, Taiwan and the UK – the latter of which we’re sure you’ll have noticed, couldn’t be further from the Pacific.

  • However, accession requires a unanimous vote, so the more controversial applicants (China and Taiwan) will likely remain outside in the cold for a while longer.
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