Defense and offense reversed

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Defense and offense reversed

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorialwriter at the JoongAng Ilbo.

One of many media photos of the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is particularly unforgettable. It is a photo of him sitting on the front row of the audience at the World Economic Forum in January 2014, paying close attention to then President Park Geun-hye’s keynote speech. It was a gesture to approach Park, who had refused to have a summit with him for nearly one year since she took office because she wanted Japan first to resolve the issue of Korean victims of wartime sexual slavery. The first talks between Park and Abe took place two months later on the sidelines of the Korea-Japan-U.S. summit. Their summit finally took place 20 months after the trilateral summit. It was a typical pattern of Korea-Japan relations that Korea took an offensive position while Japan was in defense at least over their bitter history.

The pattern, however, was broken and the offense and defense were reversed since the Moon Jae-in administration. After the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling that Japanese companies must compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor in 2018, Japan shifted to an offense position by saying that Korea first broke the international law so the Korea-Japan relations would be normalized after Korea resolved the issue first.

At the reception of multilateral summits, Moon always first approached his Japanese counterpart. The Japanese prime minister sometimes moved away from Moon to make sure that he would not run into his Korean counterpart. With a plan to restore the talks among the two Koreas and the United States by using the Tokyo Olympics, Moon made special efforts to persuade Japan, but then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga responded icily.

The hiccup last week may be the outcome of the reversed positions. Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of the National Security Office, announced that Japan has willingly agreed to hold a summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this week. Korean newspapers ran front page stories that the leaders of Korea and Japan will have their summit for the first time in 33 months.

Japan quickly refuted it. Japanese media reported the Foreign Ministry’s reaction that nothing had been agreed on. The reports said the two leaders would have a brief stand-up conversation, not a formal summit. Sources in Japan also gave similar responses. They said Tokyo has different expectations for the Yoon Suk-yeol administration from the Moon administration, but many Japanese officials said a summit is still premature because the aftermath of the lawsuit over the forced laborer issues remains unresolved.

Given past experiences, it is not difficult to imagine what messages Seoul and Tokyo are exchanging. The two leaders will meet in New York, but the format is the issue. It won’t be a stand-up conversation as reported by Japanese media and it won’t be a formal summit Korea wants either. It would likely be a pull-aside meeting, which would be a compromise between what Tokyo and Seoul want. The pull-aside meeting is not a formal summit in which the two leaders sit down with their national flags and talk about pre-coordinated agendas. It will be a brief, casual meeting. The Korean presidential office wants to call it a “summit,” while Japan wants to call it an “encounter.”

The two countries basically have different perceptions on a summit. “Unlike Korea, which sees a summit as a starting point of resolving the dispute, Japan wants to have a summit after setting a direction for a clear resolution, even if it won’t be final,” said a Japanese official.
President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second from right, attend a summit of NATO member countries and partners in Madrid, Spain, June 29. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

In his New York Times interview last week, Yoon hoped to strike a “grand bargain” with Tokyo over the history issues. It sounds like that all standing issues between Korea and Japan would be resolved at once, if the summit takes place. But Japan’s position remains unchanged that it wants to see Korea’s actions first.

Japan’s stubbornness is a problem, but Korea’s rush to a summit is also worrisome. If Korea begs for a summit — and if Japan reluctantly accepts it — it is easy to predict what happens. Seoul must not allow Tokyo to use a summit itself as a useful negotiation tool.
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