Ending diplomatic isolation
The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Tokyo has high expectations for a breakthrough in bilateral relations, at their lowest point since normalization of ties in 1965, after the election of Yoon Suk-yeol as president. Overly great expectations could lead to great disappointment. Still, the Japanese express hope that the new conservative president would be a change. Two factors could define how the new government addresses Tokyo over the next five years.
Former Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso attended the inauguration ceremony of previous conservative president Park Geun-hye on Feb. 25, 2013 as a special envoy from Tokyo. While addressing the new president, Aso compared the bilateral relationship to the American Civil War. “While the Northerners refer to the war as a civil war, the Southerners still call it an aggression from the North. Even the same nation or race have different views on the history,” said the visitor, to the chagrin of the hostess. She wasn’t expecting a lecture on the inevitable difference in historical understanding that is at the heart of the Korea-Japan relationship. But his remarks were wrong-headed, comparing a civil war to an outright foreign invasion. Park’s first presidential address a few days later to mark the March 1 Independence Movement Day had a hard-line and scornful tone. “The historical positioning of an aggressor and a victim does not change even after 1,000 years pass,” she said. Relations between the two governments have stayed icy ever since.
It is up to Tokyo to decide whom to send to congratulate the new president of its neighboring country on May 10. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida personally making the trip would be ideal symbolically. Former prime minister Shinzo Abe also could be a good choice. He was a far-right leader during his term. But he uses relatively sophisticated language and has quick judgments. He would make an entirely different guest from Aso. If Abe still wields influence in Japanese politics and visits Seoul, Kishida could have more maneuvering room to draw conservative forces in Japan to its relations with a neighboring country. Abe would be a strategic choice.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida over the phone at the headquarters of the People Power Party on the morning of March 11, two days after his election victory. [PEOPLE POWER PARTY]
The timing and method of a summit are other important factors. Pending issues between the two governments are numerous from the dispute over compensation for forced labor during World War II to Tokyo’s restriction on IT device and material exports bound for South Korea and the issue of Japan listing the Sado Mine as a Unecso World Heritage site. If a summit takes place without ironing out and fine-tuning these differences, the talks can hardly succeed. Therefore, the two governments must first confirm their common values on such positions on Beijing’s widening influence for regional hegemony, war-waging Russia, and human rights and democracy.
The upcoming Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) summit among the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India scheduled for late May in Tokyo could make the best stage for Yoon and Kishida to meet. Seoul can take the initiative to propose its joining of the meeting as QUAD +1. In that venue, Yoon could hold a trilateral summit with his American and Japanese counterparts or separately meet with them. Yoon’s government could premier its diplomatic direction with key allies in a single occasion. It would lessen the burden of arranging separate summit talks. Kishida also can relieve himself of a burden from the Upper House election on July 10.
Washington won’t likely say no to the idea. North Korea has proven its capability in intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear warheads. It would be ridiculous for South Korea to be excluded from QUAD talks addressing North Korean issues. Seoul has had enough of diplomatic isolation during the five-year Moon Jae-in administration.
It is heartbreaking to see the people fleeing their homes in Ukraine due to Russia’s aggression in today’s world. History does not always move forward. The Ukraine crisis is proof of history backtracking. We took for granted the importance of security, our alliance with the U.S. and our sharing of values with neighboring Japan.
Seoul has slipped into diplomatic isolation over the last five years so as not to upset Beijing or Pyongyang. During the 1994-5 Russo-Japan War, King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) declared that Korea will be a permanently neutral state. But his proclamation was utterly ignored by the powers. President-elect Yoon is lucky that he has a manual not to repeat the past.