A Step Toward Normalizing Japan-South Korea Relations
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A Step Toward Normalizing Japan-South Korea Relations


APLN member Yoichi Funabashi writes on the Japan-South Korea Summit and points out that both Asian countries are on the front lines of the geopolitical offensives mounted by Eurasian dictatorships and their expanding spheres of influence and must cooperate as states within a security network based on the United States alliance. Read the original article here.

Ties between the two Asian neighbors deteriorated under Yoon’s predecessor, a trend he hopes to reverse.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Seoul this weekend is expected to showcase that Japanese and South Korean relations are back on track.

What led to this was the March 16 summit between Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, which was a significant step toward normalizing Japanese-South Korean ties.

Relations between the two Asian neighbors had deteriorated to an unprecedented degree during the tenure of Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, over the issue of “comfort women,” women and girls who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II, and the wartime forced labor of Koreans.

During a joint news conference held at the summit’s conclusion, Yoon said that the South Korean government’s position on wartime forced laborers was based upon the 1965 claims agreement concluded during the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, and stressed that “we will not disregard this in the normalization of South Korean-Japanese relations.”

Yoon also made it clear that the South Korean government’s conventional understanding of the wartime forced labor issue differed from that of the country’s Supreme Court, which in a series of 2018 rulings ordered two Japanese firms to pay compensation to wartime forced laborers and their families. Before the summit, the South Korean government announced a solution by which a state-run foundation, the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan, would offer equivalent compensation to victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor, in place of the Japanese firms. Prime Minister Kishida praised the Yoon administration’s decision, actions and hailed the “return to a healthy relationship between Japan and South Korea.”

The summit also confirmed that South Korea will normalize the General Security of Military Information Agreement while Japan will lift its restrictions on the export of semiconductor-related materials to South Korea. The two leaders further agreed to resume a more informal “shuttle diplomacy” and meet as needed going forward.

Regarding South Korea’s request for an apology and expression of remorse for Japan’s colonial rule, however, Kishida said only that the Japanese government “inherits, as a whole, the positions of previous Cabinets on historical recognition.” Kishida was referring to Japan’s previous expression of “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” — the words used in the Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration of 1998.

However, Kishida refrained from repeating these words himself. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end expressed “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for “actions during the war.” Abe ventured these words on the premise that they would represent Japan’s final apology about historical issues. Kishida has no choice but to bear this in mind.

Yoon has been harshly criticized at home for making too many concessions to Japan. A representative of the Democratic Party of Korea, the largest opposition party, criticized the government, saying “the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has chosen to repudiate historical justice and become a servant of Japan.”

Yoon responded to these criticisms during a post-summit Cabinet meeting, saying “Japan has already expressed its remorse and apologies to us dozens of times,” and attacked the opposition’s use of anti-Japanese sentiment for political gain. Yoon’s approach to Japan is a clear departure, politically and psychologically from the type of Japan policy on which his predecessors in office have relied.

This time Yoon appears to have made a “lonely decision” to normalize relations with Japan through a rapid breakthrough approach, thwarting the balanced, gradualist approach favored by the Blue House’s diplomatic staff and Foreign Ministry officials. Yoon likely determined that a strategic partnership could not be established through the conventional “balance sheet diplomacy” whereby South Korea would carefully calibrate each concession to match those made by Japan.

During the joint news conference, a South Korean reporter asked Yoon what national interests had been advanced at the summit. The question reflected the Korean public’s dissatisfaction with Yoon’s Japan diplomacy and the perception that Japan had achieved many wins without conceding anything in return. Yoon replied by saying, “the national interests of South Korea and Japan are not in a zero-sum relationship, but a win-win.”

But where does Yoon’s positive view of Japan come from?

Yoon once said that during his time as a public prosecutor, his exchanges with Japanese prosecutors left him impressed by their devotion to professionalism without regard for political right or left. Yoon’s own fierce professionalism as a public prosecutor was evident in the way he pursued abuses of power under the administrations of both the conservative Park Geun-hye and the progressive Moon.

There is also a more structural context for Yoon’s approach to Japan. Yoon knows that South Korea is emerging as an advanced middle power, active on the world stage and responsible for maintaining and developing a free and open international order. From Yoon’s comment that “from now on, we must deal with Japan proudly and confidently,” we can sense the strategic and future-oriented spirit informing his project of building an equal partnership between the two nations.

There can be no more promising partner than a South Korea that “approaches Japan proudly and confidently.” Both Asian countries are on the front lines of the geopolitical offensives mounted by Eurasian dictatorships and their expanding spheres of influence and must cooperate as states within a security network based on the United States alliance.

The question going forward is the extent to which the Korean people will support Yoon’s view of Japan and its strategy. Japan must deepen its involvement with South Korea in order to expand this popular support.

During the next four years of the Yoon administration, it will be essential to strengthen and institutionalize security and economic security cooperation between Japan and South Korea and between Japan, South Korea and the United States so that there can be no turning back, even when the administration changes.

Image: Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol hold a joint news conference at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo on March 16. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

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