Determination by the Two Leaders Revives Japan-South Korea Mutual Visits

March 2023 will be remembered as a significant milestone in the history of Japan-South Korea diplomatic ties.

By Tetsuya Hakoda

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March 2023 will be remembered as a significant milestone in the history of Japan-South Korea diplomatic ties. Through persistent dialogues between the foreign ministries on both sides, the prolonged and serious souring of relations over the wartime forced labor issue bottomed out. The relationship, which had turned into a quagmire by the bad moves of the Shinzo Abe and Moon Jae-in administrations, has been restored through the very power of politics and diplomacy.

It was South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol who made the bigger decision, fully aware of the political risk at home. As he pursued the conciliatory “Sunshine Policy” approach, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also responded, and the “shuttle diplomacy” between the two countries resumed after a 12-year hiatus. Improvements in bilateral relations, both public and private, have outpaced expectations. However, this is just the beginning. Whether it reaches a honeymoon or relapses, even under the Yoon administration, will depend on the attitudes of both governments and the situation at home and abroad.

Toasting with “Bomb Shots” of Friendship

On March 16, after announcing to resume reciprocal visits at the summit meeting, the leaders and their wives enjoyed sukiyaki at the first restaurant that evening. At the second venue, a long-established Western-style restaurant, also in Tokyo’s Ginza district, Kishida and Yoon toasted with a glass of beer, this time without their spouses. Then, Yoon downs his beer in one gulp and surprises everybody present. Soon, soju (Korean distilled spirit) along with Japanese beer were brought to the table of the two leaders, known to be hearty drinkers. After tasting them in a Korean-style poktan-ju (bomb shot) cocktail, they also cheered with quality Japanese sweet potato shochu on beer version. In a jolly mood, with right arms linked, the two downed their drinks.

Ahead of the extraordinary restaurant-hopping dinners, the summit meeting and the joint press conference served to satisfy many of the answers long-awaited by both countries. Referring to the solution for the forced labor issue announced on March 6 by South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, 10 days before Yoon’s visit to Tokyo, Kishida said he welcomes the announcement as a sign of a “return to a healthy relationship between Japan and South Korea, which had been tense.”

In October 2018, Japan-South Korea relations plummeted when the Supreme Court of Korea issued a ruling ordering Japanese companies to compensate wartime forced laborers from the Korean Peninsula. Japan strongly opposed this, arguing that all compensation issues were fully resolved by the 1965 agreement when the two countries normalized ties. Tokyo urged the then Moon Jae-in administration to take appropriate steps as the government responsible for diplomatic relations, to prevent damages to the Japanese companies.

In 2005, during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the South Korean government had concluded that the economic cooperation fund provided by the 1965 agreement inclusively considered the compensation issue for the wartime forced laborers. At the time, Moon had been a senior official in charge of this matter in the Roh administration. Caught in a double bind of court rulings and the conventional government view, the Moon administration initially sought to deal the issue domestically. Yet, Moon gradually took a tougher line. Instead of issuing the government’s view, he shifted his stance, claiming as if the different perception of the agreement between Tokyo and Seoul was the root of the problem, and further soured bilateral relations.

On the interpretation of the agreement, the crux of the conflict, Yoon stated frankly at the joint press conference in Tokyo that “a ruling different from the [Korean] government’s interpretation of the [claims] agreement was issued,” and to align with the ruling, “as one way of solution, we have announced a third-party compensation proposal using a fund.”

With the third-party compensation method, the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan (chairperson: Shim Kyu-sun), under the Korean government, collects donations and pays compensation to the plaintiffs in lieu of the defendant Japanese companies. This scheme was a solution reached after government officials from Japan and South Korea put their heads together and studied the legal system of the civil law and other South Korean domestic law, as well as legal precedents. A potential plan with a similar scheme was considered during the Moon administration, but the South Korean side insisted on the involvement of the defendant Japanese companies, and the plan flopped. The greatest difference in the Yoon administration’s plan is that, although voluntary participation by the defendant companies is encouraged, it is not obligatory.

Since the court rulings, various resolution ideas have come up and disappeared between Tokyo and Seoul. Besides suggestions from the South Korean side, for example, then Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono presented a “personal proposal,” seeking a measure where both sides could save face. But Moon could not make the final decision for any of them and they all dispersed.

Yet, the third-party compensation method announced by the Yoon administration is not perfect. Dealing with the plaintiffs refusing entirely to receive compensation from the fund was an especially vexing problem. After exhaustive consideration, the Korean government came up with the interpretation that by depositing the payments with the court, the plaintiffs’ claims would be eliminated. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers have rejected this idea, and a new suit could be filed.

The “right to claim,” in which the fund that paid the debt could demand compensation to the Japanese companies at some point, was also the focus. On this, Yoon asserted at the joint press conference, “If the right to claim is exercised, it will take all the issues back to square one. The South Korean government does not expect any exercise of the right to claim.” Both the Japanese and South Korean sides point out that whether it is the interpretation of the 1965 agreement or the right to claim exercise, if the administration changes after the next presidential election, it may come up with a new idea. Such chances could not be ruled out. Meanwhile, the fact that a sitting president made a clear statement at a joint press conference will be accepted with significant weight in the future.

Coalition Against North Korea Is Top Priority

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There was much meandering before reaching this resolution plan. On the South Korean government’s side, Kim Tae-hyo, First Deputy Director of the Office of National Security for the Office of the President , who has personal connections with the supreme leader Yoon and Japan, was eager from an early stage. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Park Jin and then National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han had been voicing a cautious approach on specific details and for the timing of the announcement. After Yoon took office, working-level exchanges became evermore close between the two countries, and from July 2022, joint public-private sector conferences were held in South Korea to seek a resolution. As for Seoul, while proceeding talks with Tokyo, it needed to promote domestic understanding of the plan in which the South Korean side will compensate on behalf of the defendant companies. At the same time, there were growing calls within the government requesting a “sincere response” from Japan, while maintaining the general framework of the solution. The desired response was for the Japanese government and the defendant companies to express apology and remorse once again, and although voluntary, for the defendant companies to provide some form of money.

The Japanese government resented this, and an antagonistic mood prevailed at one point. It was the Japan-South Korea summit meeting in Phnom Penh in November 2022 that changed this grim situation.

In September that year, the two leaders had met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. But given Seoul’s premature statement, in fear of backlash from hawkish conservatives at home, Tokyo denied it was an official summit and announced it as an “informal talk.” Yet, in November, just before Kishida’s visit, vice president Taro Aso of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) met with Yoon in Seoul and developed a rapport. Since the LDP heavyweight said he “laid the groundwork for the Japan-South Korea summit,” it eased the fear of offending the conservatives, and the official summit was held without forced labor resolution plans presented in advance.

Apart from such domestic circumstances, both Tokyo and Seoul had a just reason for a summit—dealing with North Korea, which kept on launching all kinds of missiles.

Besides his focus on universal values such as democracy and a market economy, the other core motive behind Yoon’s haste to improve ties with Japan was forming a coalition against North Korea. At this stage, his priority seems to lean towards countering Pyongyang. The “Audacious Initiative,” which was launched as the policy towards North Korea since Yoon took office, is actually a thorough hardline stance despite the open to dialogue claim. Therefore, every time Pyongyang fires a ballistic missile, the South Korean and American forces take some kind of countermeasure. While the Moon administration placed inter-Korea reconciliation as a top priority, the Yoon administration is acutely conscious of North Korea in the opposite sense. We could say it has more weight than the history issue with Japan.

The Japanese government welcomed the advent of the Yoon administration with such a stance. The forced labor and comfort women were of course serious historic issues. But Tokyo’s strongest distrust with the Moon administration was whether it was willing to cooperate to create order in East Asia, with China rising to power and North Korea developing missiles and nuclear weapons. In other words, the confrontations of the Abe-Moon administrations were not only about historic issues but also came from their different visions of the desirable future.

In contrast, many of the Yoon administration’s diplomatic and security staff had served in key posts in the Lee Myung-bak administration, which lasted until 2013. As was in the Lee administration, the current diplomatic and unification policy features the pursuit of globalism and consistent reciprocity with North Korea. While applying the “Audacious Initiative” towards Pyongyang, by late 2022, the Yoon administration announced the South Korean version of the Indo-Pacific Strategy with China in mind, which the Moon administration balked till the end. The new strategy titled, “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region,” was quite different from the traditional idea with the North-South problem at the center and emphasized South Korea’s role as a “global pivotal state,” which was even more palatable for Tokyo.

Yoon also referred to Japan’s three strategic documents, saying, “Japan increased its defense budget because there are [North Korean] IRBMs flying over their heads, and decided to include the so-called ‘counterstrike’ concept in its defense plan. How can anyone take issue with that?” His approving stance also made Japan lower its guard towards the Yoon administration.

Positive Spiral Generates Synergy Effect

On this backdrop, Kishida visited Seoul on May 7, short of two months from Yoon’s visit to Tokyo. At the joint press conference after the previous Japan-South Korea summit, Kishida himself had stated he would consider “visiting Seoul at an appropriate time in the future.” But in fact, at one point, there were views within the Japanese government that a “shuttle diplomacy” visit to Seoul would be difficult before the year end, due to plans to revive the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit after three years, which Japan had been putting off because of lack of progress in the forced labor issue, Kishida attending international meetings, and also the domestic political situation. Besides the tight schedule, Seoul’s expectations for a “sincere response” towards the forced labor issue had been a burden for Tokyo. However, things took a sudden turn early in the last week of April. Kishida himself was eager to visit South Korea in response to Seoul’s request for an early visit, and a trip was scheduled in May after the Golden Week holidays.

At the summit and the joint press conference in Seoul, on the historic recognition issue, the main focus, Kishida reiterated, “The Japanese government upholds the positions of previous Japanese cabinets, including the 1998 Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration,” like at the summit in Tokyo. But what followed was different. “It touched me that you opened your heart for a future together, without forgetting the painful memories of the past,” referring to the process by the fund for the forced labor victims. And he just added, “Personally, I have strong pain in my heart as I think of the extreme difficulty and sorrow that many people had to suffer under the severe environment in those days.” The comment was devised to let the Yoon administration save face while avoiding conservative backlash at home.

In March, in the discussions leading up to the announcement of the forced labor resolution plan, Tokyo had initially indicated to Seoul that regarding the apology and remorse, “the Japanese government upholds the positions of previous cabinets on historic recognition” was as far as it could say. In later negotiations, Tokyo conceded to include the 1998 Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration (Japan-South Korea partnership) which contains the apology and remorse, but had Seoul agree to not mentioning the details of the declaration.

These were all quotes within the words of the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In short, Kishida’s statements on historic recognition were virtually bound within the confines of what Abe said. In fact, “pain in my heart” was the phrase Abe used to address the former comfort women, when he had to give up revising the 1993 Kono Statement because of pressure from the U.S. and other factors. Yet this time, because the Japanese government had a consistent stance on the forced labor issue and Kishida himself referred to the topic at the joint press conference in Seoul, the phrase “pain in my heart” was accepted favorably to some extent by the South Korean side, without causing a severe backlash.

At the Hiroshima G7 Summit, Kishida proposed to Yoon to pray together at the Korean A-bomb victim cenotaph in the Peace Memorial Park. And regarding the release of treated radioactive wastewater from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Japan agreed to accept inspection by South Korean experts. These helped to show that Japan empathized with South Korean sentiments. The considerations created a strong impression that Tokyo-Seoul diplomacy has begun to mesh together at last.

Flexibility Required on Both Sides

What is needed to continue the development without stopping this flow? The Japanese side still cannot shake off the distrust of the South Korean government scrapping the promises they made, mainly on the historic issues. The typical example is the Japan-South Korea Comfort Women Agreement signed by the Park Geun-hye administration, nullified by the following Moon administration. You hear comments in Japan that South Korean administrations in the past have played the so-called “Japan card” late in their term to boost their approval ratings. Meanwhile, things are not that simple when viewing the bilateral relations from Seoul’s side.

For example, the Roh Moo-hyun administration initially tried to maintain a friendly relationship with Japan but became distrustful with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. In 2004, when South Korea revealed it had secretly attempted to develop nuclear weapons in the past, Roh was irked by Tokyo’s fierce criticism. The following year, in 2005, the Shimane prefectural government set up the “Takeshima Day” dedicated to the disputed island, and the confrontation became decisive.

President Lee had made clear his policy of pragmatism and less emphasis on historical issues. Seoul had expected an Asia-centric foreign policy by the administration run by the Democratic Party of Japan, but it strongly claimed Takeshima/Dokdo as Japan’s territory. And Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda kept avoiding comments on the comfort women issue despite Seoul’s calls that it would not seek legal liability. This led Lee to finally visit the disputed island. From South Korea’s point of view, in both cases, it was Tokyo that shook off Seoul’s extended hand and became provocative.

The lesson we should learn from the past is not to set bilateral promises and agreements as the goal, but consider them as a process, and stay mutually engaged. As identities clash and people in both countries voice extreme opinions, the options are limited, considering the domestic political situation on both sides. Yet, from the settlement of the forced labor issue to resuming the shuttle diplomacy by the two leaders, the mutual consideration has served to not only stop the negative spiral but also bring the synergy of spreading cooperation to many other areas.

The plan for resolving the wartime forced labor issue, the biggest concern, had been rigorously devised, factoring in the various situations that could emerge after its announcement. But of course, it is not perfect. If a plaintiff rejects the payment from the fund and files a new lawsuit, the judiciary judgment is unpredictable. And with a change of administration, there is no guarantee the issue will never rekindle. Before the presidential election in four years’ time, the general election in April 2024 is likely to have considerable impact on Japan-South Korea relations. Depending on the outcome, the Yoon administration could rapidly lose support with over three years remaining in his term.

Even when faced with these challenges, to overcome them, it is vital for both sides to carefully review what caused the bitter confrontations during the last decade, especially those in the recent five years, so as not to repeat the same mistakes. On this basis, the key to the future will depend on whether the two countries have the flexibility to think outside the conventional framework.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 79 (May/Jun. 2023) of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Tetsuya Hakoda is a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun. After graduating from the Ritsumeikan University, he joined the Asahi Shimbun in 1988. He has served as the Seoul Bureau staff (1999-2003), Seoul Bureau Chief (2008-2013), and an editorial staff (covering the Korean Peninsula). He is the translator of Ianfu undo, seiiki kara hiroba he [Comfort Women Movement: from Sanctuary to Open Space].

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