Leaders of Japan and South Korea Vow to Strengthen Relations

The leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed on Sunday to press ahead with joint efforts to improve bilateral ties despite domestic misgivings, stating that historical differences should not prevent the two countries from working more closely to address the growing security challenges of North Korea and Japan. China.

Before Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan arrived in Seoul to meet President Yoon Suk Yeol and to nurture his fledgling détente, South Koreans had been waiting with rapt attention for what Mr Kishida might have to say about Japan's brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early days. 20th century. .

Mr Kishida said Japan stood by past statements in which several of his predecessors expressed regret and apologies. But he didn't go any further than that, saying only that “my heart hurts” when I think of the suffering of the Korean people.

His words fell short of the clear and direct apology demanded by many South Koreans, including the head of the main opposition party.

But Mr Yoon said he would stop at nothing to seek such an apology.

“It's not something we can demand unilaterally; it is something that should come naturally from the sincerity of the other party,” said Mr. Yoon during a joint press conference with Mr. Kishida. “We must abandon the notion that we cannot take a single step forward for future cooperation until past history is resolved.”

The moment was too urgent, he suggested. “Both South Korea and Japan face a dire security situation in Northeast Asia, and Prime Minister Kishida and I share the view that we stand at the crossroads of a shift in historic proportions,” he said, referring to the growing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea and growing rivalry. in between the United States and China. “South Korea and Japan, who share the same values, should work together for common interests.”

Mr Kishida said he was on the same page, praising the South Korean leader's “determination and ability to act” to improve bilateral relations.

Mr Kishida's two-day trip follows Mr Yoon's March visit to Tokyo. It means shuttle diplomacy between the US's two main allies is back on track after regular exchanges between the countries' leaders ended in 2011 due to historical differences. Their pledge on Sunday to deepen national ties is another encouraging sign for Washington, which has been urging Tokyo and Seoul to let go of past grievances and work together more.

When he met Mr Yoon in Washington late last month, President Biden thanked him for his “courageous and principled diplomacy with Japan.”

In March, Mr Yoon removed barriers in relations with Japan when he announced that South Korea would no longer demand Japanese compensation for victims of forced labor during World War II, but would create its own fund for them. He also said then Japan should no longer be expected to “kneel to our knees for our history 100 years ago”.

The olive branch to Tokyo is part of Mr. Yoon's broader move to reshape South Korean diplomacy, aligning his country more closely with countries with “shared values”, especially the United States, on matters such as supply chains and a “free and open” Indo. -Pacific​.

Mr Yoon's diplomatic concessions have been political bounty for Mr. Kishida at home but has been injured Mr Yoon in his own country, where he was accused of “treacherous and shameful diplomacy”. His domestic critics say he gives too much and gets too little in return from Japan, which they say has never properly apologized or redeemed—a common complaint among many other Asian victims, particularly in China and North Korea, of Japan's World War II aggression.

For many South Koreans, what matters most in relation to Tokyo is how Japan's leaders viewed its colonial era, when Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names; when schools removed Korean language and history from the curriculum; and when tens of thousands of Korean women were forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army.

On Sunday, the political opposition accused Mr Yoon of “speaking for Japan,” not for his own people.

“Why should ignoring history be a condition for getting diplomacy back on track?” said Kang Sunwoo, a spokesman for the main opposition Democratic Party. “History is not a thing of the past. This is an ongoing issue of universal human rights.”

Although Mr Kishida offers no new apology, he and Mr Yoon agree on more steps to heal historical wounds and repair relations. At Sunday's press conference, they said that when Mr. Yoon attends this month's Group of 7 summit in Hiroshima, he and Mr. Kishida will visit a monument to the Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombing.​

Mr Kishida also said Japan would allow South Korean experts to inspect the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant to ensure that the planned release of one million tons of water from there into the sea was safe.

“Kishida, as expected, refers to an obscure past,” said Lee Junghwan, an expert on Korea-Japan relations at Seoul National University, after the summit. “He played it safe, watching his domestic audience in Japan but also said nothing that would provoke South Koreans.”

The last time a Japanese leader visited South Korea, relations were so bad that the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, remained seated during a standing ovation as North and South Korean Olympians marched together during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.

Mr Kishida, traveling on a friendlier atmosphere, said he wanted to “add momentum” to improve relations. But some analysts believe decades of tensions will ease easily, given the political pressure at home for the two leaders.

“More than 90 percent of our bilateral relationship is domestic politics,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat. “So the South Korean people cannot forgive us. They will continue to put pressure on us, and they want to maintain this kind of relationship forever by moving the goalposts.”

Meanwhile, Mr Kishida needs the support of far-right politicians in Japan, who are among the most influential in selecting party leaders.

But Tokyo may consider how to deal with subtle pressure from the United States, analysts say.

Mr Biden's praise of Mr Yoon's diplomacy was “a kind of message not only to President Yoon but to Kishida,” said Junya Nishino, a law professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

Mr Yoon's determination to improve relations with Tokyo was partly supported by a shift in public opinion in South Korea. In recent surveys, China has replaced Japan as the country deemed least liked, especially by young people.

But South Korea's concerns about Japan have deeper roots than Mr Yoon would like to believe, analysts say. A survey in March found that 64 percent of South Korean respondents saw no need to rush to improve relations unless Japan changed its attitude toward history.

Prof Alexis Dudden at the University of Connecticut, an expert on Korea-Japan relations, warned Seoul, Tokyo and Washington against treating “history as mere background music for the moment and irrelevant to how it informs immediate concerns — in this case, stand firm.” in North Korea and increasingly in China too.”

As the history of relations between South Korea and Japan has repeatedly shown, reconciliation over one historical dispute has little success if another dispute, such as territorial rights over a group of islets between the two countries, is revived.

“Historical issues have a way of coming back and biting you in the back,” says Daniel Sneider, professor of East Asian studies at Stanford University. “This is not just a matter of short-term public opinion. It is an identity issue in Korea.”