Suddenly needing Japan

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Suddenly needing Japan

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


The Moon Jae-in administration has destroyed the country’s diplomacy with an unreasonable foreign policy that goes against international relations’ fundamental principle of reciprocity. The worst state of Korea-Japan relations is the outcome. What is reciprocity? It is a simple principle that means, if you treat me well, I will in return treat you well.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga refused to have a meeting with outgoing Korean Ambassador Nam Kwan-pyo on Jan. 17 before his departure for Korea. On Jan. 15, lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party demanded that Korea delay the dispatch of its new ambassador. Japan is upset over a Korean court’s ruling on Jan. 8 concluding that Japan must compensate Korea’s wartime sex slavery victims.

And yet, Moon told the outgoing Japanese ambassador to Korea on Jan. 14 that “the two countries must restore a constructive and future-oriented relationship through talks.” In a press conference on Monday, Moon also expressed his wish to restore relations with Japan. As a result, Japan ended up becoming a country that flatly turned down a neighboring country’s leader’s gesture of reconciliation.

What has happened? Japan probably thinks the Moon administration’s Japan policy ignores the universally valid principle of reciprocity. The ruling on comfort women is not the only example. In November, National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Park Jie-won abruptly raised the issue of making a second Seoul-Tokyo joint declaration during his visit to Japan. Rep. Kim Jin-pyo also proposed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un be invited to the Tokyo Olympic Games. Both proposals must have enraged Japan.

Park, the NIS chief, said he was inspired by the 1998 joint declaration spearheaded by President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. It’s really surprising that it was Park who presented the idea of another joint declaration, because Park is the closest aide of the late President Kim and he must have known the essence of the Kim-Obuchi joint declaration better than anyone else in the field today.

The truth is that the Korea-Japan relations did not improve because of the joint declaration. The joint declaration was possible thanks to the two leaders’ determination to improve ties and enormous efforts they made.

Kim and Obuchi tried to restore Korea-Japan relations after bilateral ties worsened due to the sex slave issue and a dispute over a fisheries agreement. At the time, Korea needed Japan’s help in the Asian economic crisis and Japan needed Korea to counter North Korean threats. Therefore, the two sides struck a deal on the fisheries agreement and announced the joint declaration.

There were many obstacles. Ahead of Kim’s planned visit to Tokyo in October 1998, Japan’s minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries said in late July, “I have doubts about including the uncertain issue of Japan’s conscription of comfort women in the textbooks.” His remark was provocative, but the Kim administration remained silent. The minister, a few hours later, withdrew his remarks. It was clear that Obuchi must have pressured him to do so. The two countries worked hard to overcome the obstacle.

President Kim also decided to use the term, “emperor of Japan,” instead of “king of Japan,” despite strong resistance to it in Korea. Based on such efforts, Japan offered an apology and repented for its past wrongdoings and Korea agreed to open up the country to Japan’s popular culture in the historic joint declaration.

Moon, until recently, did not hide his animosity toward Japan. After Japan’s retaliations grew fierce over a Korean court’s ruling that Japanese companies must compensate victims of forced laborers in August 2019, Moon declared, “We will never be defeated by Japan.” In a speech for the Korean War anniversary last June, Moon said, “There is a country that benefited from the war while the Korean people were suffering.” The remarks drew criticism for trying to stir up anti-Japan sentiment.

But that president changed suddenly. At the Asean-Plus-Three Summit in November, he said, “I am pleased to see the participating leaders, particularly Prime Minister Suga.” On Jan. 17, Rep. Kang Chang-il, Korea’s new ambassador to Japan, said, “President Moon has a strong will to improve Korea-Japan relations and wants to meet with Suga.” But unfortunately, Moon’s shift is seen as a strategy to create a breakthrough in the North-U.S. relations by inviting North Korean leader Kim to the Tokyo Olympics.

If the Moon administration realized the importance of the Korea-Japan relations, albeit belatedly, it is fortunate. But sugarcoated words, without a clear resolution, will not work in the aftermath of the sex slave ruling and upcoming liquidation of Japanese companies’ assets in Korea to pay compensations to the forced labor victims. If Moon truly wants reconciliation with Japan, he must prove the sincerity of his commitment through actions, not words.
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