What Japan means to Moon
The author is a Washington correspondentof the JoongAng Ilbo.
“There have been 37 U.S.-Japan telephone meetings, and I attended all except for one,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga likes to say whenever someone points out his lack of diplomatic experience. Suga says that he has been deeply involved in foreign policy, as he cannot show off chemistry by playing golf with U.S. President Trump, as Abe had done.
So did Suga, then the Cabinet minister, attend the phone conversations between Japanese and Korean leaders? The answer is no. To be more precise, he attended at first but did not join later. A high-level Japanese official knowledgeable of the prime minister’s office recently told me that Suga was disappointed by the scrapping of the Korea-Japan comfort women agreement and his interest in Korea grew distant.
The order of summit diplomacy after taking office shows Suga’s interest in Korea. He picked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the first foreign leader to speak with, followed by Trump. The United States is the first ally, and Australia is a semi-ally participating in the free and open India-Pacific strategy.
President Moon Jae-in was the seventh to speak with Suga, after German Chancellor, the EU President, the UK Prime Minister and the UN Secretary General. The order has fallen considering how Japanese Prime Ministers historically first spoke with the US President, then the Korean President.
In the news conference after Suga took the office, Korea was nowhere to be found. The focus of the media was on whether the new prime minister could lead US-Japan relations solidly as Abe did and how Japan could keep a balance as US-China relations aggravated.
Japan shouldn’t be criticized for neglecting Korea. Korea-Japan relations were not the focus of President Moon’s New Year’s news conference in January 2019. It took place only three months after the Supreme Court ruling on Japan’s wartime forced labor, and it was a hot topic domestically and internationally. Until a Japanese reporter got a chance to ask a question, President Moon seemed to be avoiding commenting on the issue.
Korea and Japan didn’t grow distant overnight. The two countries have different strategies for changes in the diplomatic environment.
But you have to ask yourself if foreign policy with Japan has been addressed with symptomatic treatment without principles. It is rather poisonous to expect a sudden improvement in relations just because the prime minister changed. The same question is arising in Japan. What does Japan mean to President Moon?