[Column] An eye on the bigger picture

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[Column] An eye on the bigger picture

Kim Hyun-ki

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Taro Aso, former Japanese prime minister and currently vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party, visited the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 2. The meeting between President Yoon Suk-yeol and the Japanese political heavyweight drew close attention from watchers of Korea-Japan relationship for two reasons.

First of all, Aso has been overtly unfriendly towards Korea. Second, he is dubbed to be the power behind the governing force under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

I remember Aso personally from the controversy he had caused 10 years ago. On a visit to Seoul as a special envoy to attend the inauguration ceremony for president-elect Park Geun-hye on Feb. 25, 2013, he mentioned that the Northerners in America call the Civil War as “a war to preserve the union” whereas the Southerners refer to it as “the War of Northern aggression.” “Since even the same nation and people cannot agree on a historic event, disagreement would be natural for different nations. Japan and South Korea must address historical issue based on such understanding,” said Aso. The argument hardly could bring about sympathy from South Koreans, as he likened a war over the institution of slavery to a colonial occupation of Korea by Japan. Enraged president Park Geun-hye clearly drew the line in her first address for March 1 Liberation Day four days after the meeting. “The position on history by the aggressor and the victim cannot change even after a millennium.” Seoul and Tokyo were unable to hold a summit for nearly three years after Park came to power.

I was stupefied to hear from news sources from both governments that Aso again made the “Civil War” comment when he met President Yoon last month. I was curious to learn of Yoon’s reaction. He is said to have shown a muted response. I cannot know if the president had exercised “strategic patience” or simply missed the meaning of Aso’s remarks. I could bet on the former. Soon after the encounter, the first Korea-Japan summit in three years and a half was held on Nov. 11 during an international conference in Cambodia. Whose response was better — president Park’s or President Yoon’s — could be debated. But if Seoul reacted sensitively to Aso’s outdated sophistry just like 10 years ago, the bilateral relationship could be lost for another several years due to the fallout of a controversial statement in a top meeting.

How we can find a breakthrough in the decades-old conflict over the past is the key. Seoul is pursuing Yoon’s visit to Tokyo, proposing to have Korean companies contribute to a fund to compensate wartime forced labor victims on behalf of the Japanese companies who exploited their labor without proper pay during World War II. The Yoon administration is pushing for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida early new year probably with a big concession to Japan.
Japan finance minister Taro Aso, right, current vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party, poses before a Cabinet meeting in June 2020 when Shinzo Abe, center, was the prime minister. Aso paid a surprise visit to the presidential office in Seoul on Nov. 2 this year. [JIJI PRESS]

But the idea of pardoning Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal could cause a lasting controversy in Korea. As additional lawsuits could be filed against them, Japan won’t likely accept the idea as a final one. Tokyo already endured a breakup of an intergovernmental agreement on the sex slave issue after a new government came in Seoul. A senior official from a Japanese defendant company recently told a Korean official that he supported improvement in the Korea-Japan relationship, but could not agree to reparations for wartime forced labor. Even pulling a few Japanese companies doing business in Korea to donate the fund cannot solve the problem. A hasty settlement could cause more harm than good.

The two governments must first work on mending ties, starting with less sticky issues than the forced labor. It could be meaningful if the two leaders — both avid baseball fans — take turns in throwing the opening ball at a Korea-Japan game of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) at Tokyo Dome on March 10. They could build up friendship if the Korean president attends a G7 summit in Hiroshima as an observer in May. In between, the two governments could fine-tune a settlement outline and build mutual trust. They could end year 2023 wonderfully and set the relationship on a new path if they could come up with a milestone statement timed with the 25th anniversary of the Korea-Japan Joint Declaration of 1998 between president Kim Dae-jung and prime minister Keizo Obuchi. The statement should define the direction for the bilateral relationship for the next 25 years. I wish to believe President Yoon put up with Aso’s preposterous comment as he had his eyes on a bigger picture.
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