[Column] Toward a new Korea-Japan partnership
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The author is a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University and an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo’s Reset Korea Campaign. President Yoon Suk-yeol’s foreign policy initiatives — starting with his presentation of a solution to the issue of compensation for Japan’s wartime forced labor and his summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo — will be backed by his visit to Washington for a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 Summit in Hiroshima. The diplomatic itinerary represents his determination to resolve the complex diplomatic equation Korea faces.
The wartime forced labor is an issue of “history” between Korea and Japan. Since 2012, Korean governments shunned dealing with the issue for fear of its repercussions. During his term, President Moon Jae-in said it was undesirable to liquidate the Japanese wartime employers’ assets in Korea to compensate the victims after the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the surviving victims. But he did not present an appropriate solution. National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang attempted to address the issue by raising funds from Korean and Japanese companies as well as public donation, but failed.
President Yoon’s proposal of a “third-party” compensation came after watching the process. The proposal is regrettable because it is not clear if the wartime Japanese companies will participate in the compensation fund. Before presenting the solution, the Yoon administration lacked the process of persuading the people and the victims to seek their understanding. And yet, the proposal is an unavoidable step to effectively compensate the surviving victims while striking a delicate balance between the Supreme Court ruling in 2018 and the war claims settlement agreement between Seoul and Tokyo in 1965.
The forced labor issue is a matter of relief for victims of state violence and a matter of human rights. It is a policy in which the Korean government leads efforts to resolve human rights issues and pressures Japan’s response. As human rights issues are important matters in terms of universal values and international norms, the international community is paying keen attention to Korea’s action and Japan’s reaction.
If Tokyo is trapped in a closed circuit, repeats a regressive historical view and avoids resolving the problem, it will face international criticism. As Korea first presented a solution from a larger perspective and urged Japan to respond to it, the plan is deemed to be at the start line, not at the finish line, to resolve the thorny issue.
The recent summit in Tokyo is seen as a success, as it helped restore Korea-Japan relations from the complex conflicts and normalize their abnormal ties. Over the past decade, leaders of the two countries had no dialogue and communication. The loss of mutual trust caused their relationships to get even worse. Yoon ended this vicious cycle and had a summit with his Japanese counterpart, restoring trust and the shuttle diplomacy.
Through the summit, Yoon opened a path to resolving three major conflicts between Korea and Japan — the forced laborer issue, Japan’s export control, and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan. By pinpointing the origin of the conflicts, Yoon tried to address a set of conflicts between the two countries.
Through the summit, Korea and Japan agreed to form an economic security consultation body, restore the security dialogue channel, and cooperate on key industrial areas such as semiconductors, battery and electric vehicles. As the foundation for a new partnership declaration for the 21st century by upgrading the 1998 Korea-Japan Joint Declaration between President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has been set, the government must put all efforts to achieve the goal.
Considering the war in Ukraine, deepening tensions in the Taiwan Strait and mounting nuclear and missile threats from North Korea in particular, strengthening the Korea-U.S. alliance, cooperation between Korea and Japan and establishing a ratcheted-up Korea-Japan-U.S. cooperative system are an obvious strategic choice for Korea. Its diplomacy toward Japan is an important leverage to push forward Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy and extend its diplomatic horizon. The recent diplomatic initiatives toward Japan will serve as a stepping stone to maximize Korea’s negotiation power at the upcoming Korea-U.S. summit in April, Korea’s participation at the G7 summit in Hiroshima and a series of summits with Japan and the United States in May.
U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed and thanked Yoon’s decision. Japan’s major media also wrote editorials to urge Prime Minister Kishida to respond to Yoon’s initiatives. The situation reminds us of Korea’s strategic initiatives in the 1980s, when prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Korea and struck a grand deal for bilateral economic cooperation worth $4 billion, followed by his visit to Washington to establish close relations with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Nakasone.
Korea-Japan relations are caught in the intensifying strategic competition between America and China. Korea and Japan largely share democratic values and norms as well as significant strategic interests. During the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, Germany and France managed to accomplish historical reconciliation and turned Western Europe into a continent of peace and prosperity. In the U.S.-China competition of the 21st century, Korea-Japan cooperation can be a great asset to pave the way for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hold a joint press conference after a summit meeting in Tokyo, Mar.16. [YONHAP]
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