Regaining the World Cup spirit

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Regaining the World Cup spirit

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Is a spring coming to Korea-Japan relations? A delegation dispatched by President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol and led by National Assembly Speaker Chung Jin-suk returned from a visit to Japan last week. The delegation met key leaders, including former and current prime ministers and cabinet ministers, indicating the Japanese government’s positive expectations about the Yoon administration. “When we asked for a meeting with someone, we were never rejected,” a member of the delegation said.

The mood is very similar to that of the spring of 2008, when the Lee Myung-bak administration began. Contrasting the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which did not hesitate to start a history war, Lee followed a progressive policy toward Japan, and Tokyo welcomed Lee’s inauguration. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda attended Lee’s inauguration ceremony. Japanese diplomats were all sanguine saying that they expected nothing but improvement in Korea-Japan relations. I wrote a column at the time to express concerns that a humble attitude toward the past should not be forgotten amidst the rosy expectations.

The honeymoon period did not last long. After Japan remained silent on Korea’s demand to resolve the comfort women issue, Lee demanded that the Japanese emperor issue an apology. He even made the strongest move of visiting the Dokdo islets. It took a long time for Sisyphus to roll an immense boulder up the hill, but it took just a second for it to roll down.

This time, Japan’s welcoming approach toward Yoon is careful. Shortly after the delegation came back to Seoul, Japanese media reported that Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi will attend Yoon’s inauguration ceremony. It seems hardly possible that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will attend the event as Korea wishes.
President-elect Yoon Sul-yeol meets with the Japanese Ambassador to Korea, Koichi Aiboshi, in a reception room at his transition committee headquarters in Seoul, March 28. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The current situation is greatly different from that of 14 years ago. Korea is not pressuring Japan to repent its wartime past; Japan is pressuring Korea now. Japan is demanding that Korea must present resolutions because the forced laborer compensation dispute was triggered by a Korean court ruling, and the comfort women agreement issue was caused by Seoul’s decision to scrap the accord.

The positions of defense and offense were reversed. For the forced labor issues, Tokyo drew a bottom line, saying that it will block the sale of assets of Japanese firms seized by Korean courts to compensate the victims. The only way is legislating a special law, before the assets are forced to be sold, in order to find a solution that does not contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling at the same time.

The comfort women issue is linked to Kishida’s personal experience, as he led the negotiation to conclude the 2015 Korea-Japan agreement and signed it as the foreign minister at the time. He was proud of having achieved the deal, despite resistance by Japanese right wing politicians. He, therefore, is largely upset and disappointed that the Moon Jae-in administration scrapped the agreement. His position will remain unchanged after Yoon takes office. The only difference is that an opportunity to sit down and try to address the problem is created by the change of the administration.

In fact, the Moon government had a good opportunity. National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang had sponsored a bill to establish a fund for comfort women victims, which was the most possible resolution. If Moon had accepted it and actively persuaded the victims and anti-Japanese politicians, Korea-Japan relations would be different now. The burden to persuade the Japanese government and companies as well as the Korean victims and anti-Japan forces is now passed down to Yoon.

During his campaign, Yoon said he will return the Korea-Japan relations to the good old days. The best time perhaps was in 2002, when Korea and Japan jointly hosted the World Cup games. After the Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi declaration in 1998, the two countries steadily improved relations and efforts bloomed when they co-hosted the sports event.

June will mark the 20th anniversary of the World Cup co-hosting. It should be utilized as an opportunity for a Korea-Japan summit, along with a soccer match. As Korea will be done with local elections, the Yoon administration will be able to present a more progressive position with less political risk. The proposal is based on the fact that many people of the two countries still remember that Korea cheered for Japan and Japan cheered for Korea in June 2002.
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