A step toward improving relations
The author, a former Korean ambassador to the U.S., is president of University of North Korean Studies.
In November 2019, I had a chance to discuss Korea-Japan relations with a member of the House of Councillors — the upper house of the Japanese Diet — for quite a long time. He asked me about the South Korean government considering pulling out of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan. I said it was a bad idea that violated the principle of separating security and economic issues from historical disputes — conventional wisdom that contributed to the development of bilateral ties despite myriads of challenges after the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965.
Seoul considered the termination of Gsomia after Tokyo in July 2019 banned shipments of key materials for semiconductors to Korea in reaction to the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling saying Japanese companies should compensate wartime forced labor. In the meeting, I stressed to him that Tokyo should immediately end the ill-conceived export ban as it meant a crossing of a red line.
The Gsomia was scheduled to expire on November 23, 2019. During that meeting, I thought, “How nice it would be if the Korean government takes the moral high ground by announcing an intention to extend Gsomia around that time while mentioning disappointing measures by Tokyo. The eye for an eye approach cannot solve historical disputes between the two.”
I recalled these moments after Foreign Minister Park Jin expressed the will to “normalize the Gsomia between Seoul and Tokyo as soon as possible” in a recent trip to Washington. As the minister made a tough decision, I hope it will help pave the way to improve relations with Japan.
But domestic and foreign reactions to Minister Park are not entirely positive. Local media and even related government ministries point to the need for Seoul to deal with the normalization of Gsomia by seeking a comprehensive solution in connection with other pending issues. Some civic groups appealed to anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans by defining the move as “submissive diplomacy.”
As Koreans’ grudge against Japan is at the root of the historical disputes, it is difficult to address the issue in a rational way. And yet, if we choose to remain in emotional and political realms as in the past, it is impossible to seek a future-oriented development of the bilateral relations amid today’s ever-tougher security and economic environments.
Japan’s response also fell short of our expectations. About Park’s comment in Washington, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said, “It will contribute to peace and stability of the region.” That was all. The Japanese government demands the Korean government first bring solutions to historical disputes. Given the upper house elections slated for July 10, it will not be so easy for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to have a summit with President Yoon Suk-yeol on the sidelines of the June 29-30 NATO Summit in Madrid. Could Japan positively react to Park’s proposal for the improvement of relations? In politics, public opinion matters. But I look forward to seeing Japanese politicians stressing the importance of Korea-Japan relations to the voters in the broader context of international politics.
The United States’ role is important. While working as ambassador to Washington for 52 months since June 2013, I could observe the Obama administration trying to put strained Korea-Japan relations back on track. President Barack Obama, his State and Defense Secretaries and National Security Advisor all endeavored to better the ties after recognizing that the improvement helps protect America’s core security interests. Since President Joe Biden’s administration started, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration must help America recognize how explosive the historical issues are in both Korea and Japan and how unrealistic are the conditions Tokyo came up — demanding historical disputes be resolved — and why their separation holds the key to a better future among stakeholders. In that respect, Park’s remarks deserve high appreciation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.