Putting strained relations back on track

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Putting strained relations back on track

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

Takeo Kawamura, chairman of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union, is a political heavyweight who was a member of the House of Representatives for three decades in Japan and served as the chief cabinet secretary. On April 12, he met with Chang Je-won, chief of staff of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, and made a noteworthy comment. Regarding Korea-Japan relations, strained over various issues including Korea’s demand for compensation for wartime forced labor victims, Kawamura said, “Japan will do what it can, instead of just asking Korea to untie the knot.”

That may sound like typical diplomatic rhetoric, but considering the recent history of Korea-Japan relations, his comment is significant. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in October 2018 that Japan must compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor, Tokyo gave a consistent response to Seoul’s request to improve bilateral times. Tokyo maintained that Korea must present a solution acceptable to Japan. It held Korea fully responsible for the diplomatic stalemate and pressured Korea to resolve it. Now, Japan said it is willing to work on it. So, this is a major change. Furthermore, Kawamura reportedly told Chang that Korea elected a candidate whom Japan preferred as president.

President-elect Yoon’s delegation is visiting Japan. The delegation will meet with top Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and discuss ways to improve Korea-Japan relations and North Korean nuclear issues. Many topics will be discussed but the most important issue will be whether Prime Minister Kishida will attend Yoon’s inauguration on May 10.

In the past, Japan’s prime minister attended inauguration ceremonies of presidents Roh Tae-woo, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak, so Kishida’s visit should be considered positively. But it is not an easy issue due to the years of disputes over wartime forced labor and sexual slavery victims, as well as Japan’s claim over the Dokdo islets in its Diplomatic Bluebook. Furthermore, there is little possibility that Kishida will make a visit opposed by hard-line right-wing politicians ahead of House of Councillors elections in June.

But we must not give up on improving bilateral ties just because Kishida does not attend the inauguration. It is the most critical task for our diplomats. Japan’s help is critical for Korea’s diplomatic activities in the international community. Joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) among Australia, India, Japan and the United States is an example. Joining the group is not easy without Japan’s support. Moreover, Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperation becomes more important than ever to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats, and worsened relations with Japan are a serious headache. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fueling concerns as a new cold war is apparently emerging.

Of course, there are many obstacles on the path to improving Korea-Japan relations. In addition to the forced labor, comfort women and history textbook issues, the territorial dispute over Dokdo also remains. Korea’s strategic mistake was its unconditional pressure on Japan to win concessions on all issues.

Such a strategy is destined to backfire. A former Korean ambassador to Japan talked about his solution to the Dokdo dispute and it was realistic. “Not responding to Japan’s claim is the best,” he said. “Japan’s Foreign Ministry, of course, will issue a statement each year that Takeshima is its territory.” He said Japan will do so, because it will create a basis to argue Japan’s territorial right in any future trial.

“But when we don’t respond for decades, the day will eventually come that Tokyo will stop claiming its right over Dokdo,” he assured. When the territorial dispute withers away, Dokdo will naturally be Korea’s territory.

The comfort women issue is different. As it is a human rights issue, a universal topic, we must raise our voice when Japan attempts to distort history. The issue of forced labor requires secret negotiations between the two governments. In other words, a strategic approach to each issue is necessary. Without such a fine-tuned strategy, Korea-Japan relations will never recover.
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