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The Peninsula

Moon Pushes for Reconciliation with Japan

Published March 12, 2021
Author: Korea View

What Happened

  • In a speech commemorating Korea’s declaration of independence from Japan in 1919, President Moon indicated his government’s desire to improve ties with Japan.
  • The speech reaffirmed Moon’s long-standing push to separate bilateral discussions on the legacy of Japan’s colonial occupation from talks on security and other future-oriented concerns.
  • Moon also stated that improving relations with Japan will aid the trilateral security partnership between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Implications: Despite ongoing tensions between the two countries over the legacy of Japan’s wartime abuses against Korean nationals, the Moon administration reaffirmed its desire to improve ties with Tokyo. Moon’s recent appeal for Tokyo and Seoul to resolve the two countries’ diverging positions on history in a way that would not derail bilateral talks on shared challenges echoed his previous years’ speeches. In his 2020 Independence Movement speech, Moon briefly mentioned the importance of peaceful relations with Japan. In his later Liberation Day speech on August 15, Moon further elaborated that Korea was willing to negotiate with Japan on a mutually beneficial outcome that respects individuals’ rights. With more significant support from the United States, this week’s speech explicitly expressed interest in meeting with Japan to resolve tensions and promote the trilateral partnership. With the Biden administration promoting reconciliation, President Moon Jae-in has more support in mending relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

Context: Though the Moon administration is publicly promoting a forward-facing vision for ROK-Japan relations, the recent spate of tensions suggests mending ties will be challenging. Many problems in the bilateral relationship are beyond the control of either government. For instance, recent tensions stem from a Korean court ruling on compensation for victims of forced labor, which the Moon administration has no control over. While the separation of historical issues from future government affairs is promising, it does not shield the relationship from public controversies that may arise from future court decisions. This may become more pointed in the years ahead as aging victims of unfair treatment under Japanese colonial rule bring more court cases seeking justice.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Melissa Cho and Alexandra Langford. Creative Commons image from Flickr account of the Republic of Korea.

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