Making headway with Tokyo20 years ago, Korea requested a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Whenever the IMF bailout is discussed, then-president Kim Young-sam’s remark to “teach Japan manners” is often mentioned. He was furious that a Japanese minister had said, “Japan did a favor by annexing Korea.” The Korea-Japan relationship became aggravated, and when the economic crisis hit, Japanese capital withdrew from Korea. When the government asked for help, Tokyo responded that it could not help with businesses in the private sector. It is considered an example of the dangers of emotion in our diplomacy with Japan.
Diplomats say that the Korea-Japan relationship follows a three-year cycle. The two countries get along in the first three years of an administration, only to see things deteriorate in the last two years. That pattern persisted through the presidencies of Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak.
With President Kim Young-sam’s pre-emptive move, the Kono Statement that acknowledged the forced nature of the “comfort women” mobilization and the Murayama Statement containing repentance and an apology were issued. President Kim Dae-jung declared a new era for the Korea-Japan partnership in the 21st century.
President Roh Moo-hyun said that he would not raise difficult historical issues within his term. President Lee Myung-bak advocated pragmatic diplomacy and began his relationship with Japan with cooperation. However, in the latter parts of those presidents’ terms, the Korean leaders had to turn hard-line due to a Yasukuni shrine visit, history textbooks with distortions in them and unfortunate remarks on Dokdo from Japan’s side.
In contrast, President Park Geun-hye had a cold relationship at first and then turned to a more ambiguous position. President Lee Myung-bak’s Dokdo visit in August, 2012 left a lasting impact.
In the latter part of Park’s administration, she attempted to restore relations and signed the comfort women agreement despite a lack of approval by average Koreans. In the backlash, two countries grew farther apart.
President Moon Jae-in inherited the shadow from Park. The mood is still cold. Seoul National University professor Park Cheol-hee said that the Moon administration has learned from the failure of his predecessor that no progress can be achieved by putting historical issues first, and the historical issues and security-economy issues are approached from two different tracks.
Moon hasn’t officially mentioned scrapping the comfort women agreement, which was his stance during the presidential campaign. At the G-20 summit in July, Moon agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to restore the shuttle diplomacy of the past.
In Nov. 6, a summit meeting between Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump was held, and shrimp from Dokdo were served at a Blue House banquet. Comfort woman Lee Yong-soo was in attendance and was introduced to Trump. Those two details were considered a blow to Abe, and a Japanese minister expressed his displeasure. The emotional fight between the two countries is still ongoing.
Koreans say that Japan’s apology for the comfort women was not sincere compared to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who fell to his knees before the Polish people. The Japanese people feel differently. A Japanese reporter said that since the 1990s, every Korean administration demands an upgraded apology from Tokyo, and the Japanese people are sick of it. They say Korea keeps changing the goalposts.
Korea’s diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear crisis has put excessive expectations on China. In the course of handling Korea’s Thaad problem with China, Korea promised no additional deployment of Thaad batteries, no Korea-US-Japan military alliance and no entry into an American missile defense system.
However, it may have allowed China to interfere with Korea’s security. Park Geun-hye had high hopes after the Tiananmen Gate diplomacy on Victory Day in 2015 that she discussed the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. But more recent events have affirmed China’s stance that it is not making the slightest move since North Korea’s fourth nuclear experiment.
In the past, when Korea has had discord with Japan, Korea thought China shared a joint front on the history of anti-Japanese resistance, only to be puzzled by sudden progress in China-Japan relations. We need to acknowledge that the diplomatic calculations of the two powers could be different.
Moon has invited Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. After a state visit to China, Moon may want to consider a summit meeting in Japan and tendering an invitation to Abe as well.
If Korea moves first, we could find creative solutions to the comfort women agreement. Diplomacy is the art of compromise. For a resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis and to prepare for any emergency on the Korean Peninsula, Japan’s cooperation is essential.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 24, Page 32
*The author is a foreign policy and security news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.