The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
When President Park Geun-hye approached the podium to give a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014, she was surprised to see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sitting in the front row. It was a gesture to Park, who at the time demanded a resolution to the comfort women issue and had refused Abe’s offer to host a summit. The first summit between Park and Abe took place two months later on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit, with the participation of U.S. President Barack Obama.
The situation between Korea and Japan recently has been reversed. President Moon Jae-in is trying to engage Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won and Rep. Kim Jin-pyo, who chairs the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union, each visited Suga. The ruling Democratic Party leadership including Chairman Lee Nak-yon repeatedly said a Korea-Japan summit must take place.
During a recent videoconference in which 13 leaders participated, Moon said, “I am particularly happy to see Prime Minister Suga.” If it were an actual meeting, Moon might have approached him and used some personal charm. And yet, Suga is still unenthusiastic about visiting Korea for the Korea-Japan-China summit. No matter what his reason is, it is disappointing that Suga is avoiding the meeting.
The Moon administration’s key members are clearly showing a different attitude from their anti-Japan campaign last year. According to informed sources, they have a “big picture” in mind. They want to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the Tokyo Olympics next July to arrange an opportunity for not only U.S.-North negotiations but also Japan-North Korea negotiations.
Half a year after the Tokyo event, the Winter Games will take place in Beijing. Two great sports events — both of which can possibly recreate the diplomacy of the PyeongChang Games — will take place one after another. For Kim Jong-un, it is a chance to stride the international stage. For Suga, he could fulfill his pledge to meet with Kim without any conditions to resolve the issue of the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens.
But this plan is facing a serious obstacle. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has downplayed the significance of the North-U.S. summits between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump. The collapse of his second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, with Trump could also make Kim extremely uncertain about agreeing to the South’s plan.
Japan’s cooperation is also uncertain. It won’t be easy to ignore Japanese public sentiment, which is against Kim’s visit. Most of all, the main obstacle will be strained Korea-Japan relations. Tokyo remains adamant that Seoul come up with a solution to the current diplomatic rupture caused by the forced laborer issue.
According to a participant in Korean lawmakers’ recent trip to Japan, Suga, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party Toshihiro Nikai and Fukushiro Nukaga, chairman of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union, all stressed that a promise between the two countries must be respected.
Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun wrote in an editorial that discussing a new declaration between Moon and Suga to settle the issue “would be putting the cart before the horse.”
The Asahi Shimbun, traditionally known for a relatively friendlier approach to Korea, also displayed a similar attitude. It must have been frustrating for President Moon given the fact that he has not been able to resolve this issue earlier.
Alvin Toffler said you don’t predict the future but you imagine it. That can apply to international politics and diplomacy. To address a deadlock, you have to use your imagination. But an imagination that is not based on a cold perception of reality can be a pipe dream. For Moon’s vision, Tokyo happened to be the venue. And the first challenge will be resolving the forced laborer issue.
This is a matter that can only be resolved when both Seoul and Tokyo make concessions, because there is no way for one side to make a unilateral concession. The two countries’ leaders must decide to choose a second-best choice for each, instead of insisting on the best solution for each, which is simply impossible. When they accept the second-best options, the matter will be resolved. And at that moment, the second-best choice will become the best choice for both sides.