Using shuttle diplomacy for national interests

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Using shuttle diplomacy for national interests

Lee Hyuk

The author is a former ambassador to Vietnam.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s May 7 to 8 visit to Korea was unprecedented even as “shuttle diplomacy.” He came to Seoul less than two months after President Yoon Suk Yeol’s trip to Tokyo in March — and less than two weeks before Yoon’s visit to Hiroshima for another summit with Kishida on the sidelines of the Group of 7 summit in the city. The move reflects Kishida’s intention to build on the momentum created by Yoon to normalize the Korea-Japan relations after a long lull.

But Koreans are still puzzled over Kishida’s remarks in Seoul about past issues. How should we comprehend them?

First of all, Kishida made it clear that his cabinet will succeed previous cabinets’ positions on the issue overall; but will not repeat a regret or apology as they did; or express a new regret or apology.

As suggested by the perennial dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan’s politics, the weakening of the Constitutional Democratic Party and the emboldened Japan Innovation Party today, a conservative path is nearly destiny for Japan in the face of growing security threats from China and heated competition with Korea. As long as a conservative party is in power, we may not expect a regret or apology from a Japanese prime minister. Tokyo could be convinced that it cannot express regret or apology as it believes Seoul must take responsibility for the Supreme Court’s rulings which overturned the two government’s earlier agreements on compensations for former wartime sexual slavery and forced labor.

Second, Kishida’s admission of sadness about a number of wartime forced laborers working under tough conditions shows a maximum expression of his feelings as a Japanese prime minister within the boundaries of no remorse or apology about the past issue. Kishida accompanying Yoon on Sunday to the memorial of Korean victims of the atomic bombing to pay tribute to them reflects his wish to convey his indebtedness to the Korean people and deliver a strong will to improve bilateral ties.

The question is what to do from now. Most of all, the Yoon administration must continue the shuttle diplomacy initiated by the president until the end of his term. There is no guarantee that the two countries will maintain good relations or that Tokyo will have a better recognition of the past from now. It is also uncertain if Tokyo will recommend — or endorse — Japanese companies to make financial contributions to a third-party fund led by Seoul for the compensation. Given the worsened relations from our past governments’ political needs — and since the Yoon administration took a bold step despite political risks — the government must persistently push for active exchanges and cooperation to lay the foundation for partnership for the future.

Over other volatile issues such as historical distortions for school textbooks and politicians’ uninterrupted tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine, the government must take a clear and strict position, but at the same time should be careful not to damage the momentum for a better future. Even to offset the public criticism of the conservative government for yielding too much to Japan over the wartime forced labor issue, it must strengthen future-oriented cooperation and exchange with Japan on economic, security and cultural fronts to maximize national interests.

As Korea-Japan relations are arguably the most divisive issue, they can be used as an effective tool for domestic politics. But rivaling parties in Korea must separate cooperative relations between Seoul and Tokyo from contentious past issues whoever takes power.

Second, the government must use the improved Korea-Japan relations as the ground to seek national interest elsewhere. Despite China’s weight in economic and security terms, it is difficult for both Seoul and Tokyo to stably manage relations with Beijing amid the ever-tense U.S.-China competition. Seoul-Washington-Tokyo cooperation is aimed at bracing for potential security threats from Pyongyang and Beijing to ensure peace and stability in the region, not at escalating conflict and tension. If Korea, the U.S. and Japan intensify cooperation, China will feel a stronger need to improve relations with South Korea and Japan.

The government must successfully host the Korea-China-Japan summit this year not only to improve its relations with China but also to revitalize the tripartite cooperation. Regional stability can be achieved when Korea pursues cooperation with China and Japan while deepening and expanding cooperation with the U.S. and Japan.

Considering the tension between the pro-U.S. forces and the pro-China forces in our political terrain, building stable Korea-China relations while solidifying relations with America and Japan can draw broader domestic support. If Korea can strengthen partnership with Asean — a key player in peace and stability in the region — it will serve as a significant asset for Korea in implementing its own Indo-Pacific strategy.

The half-full glass of water should be filled with national interests from enhanced Korea-Japan relations, not with whatever steps Tokyo may take over the past issue. A new future will not open if a country forgets or sticks with its past.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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