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The Peninsula

Uncertain Prospects for Yoon's Japan Initiative

Published August 2, 2022
Category: South Korea

After several years of frozen diplomacy, the current Korean government’s drive to reset relations with Japan seems to be on an upswing. Even before taking office, President Yoon Suk-Yeol dispatched a delegation of aides to meet with Japanese officials in Tōkyō. He followed that with attendance at a trilateral meeting with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid. But while some experts are optimistic that these efforts will yield positive results, there remain significant obstacles that could derail the Yoon administration’s bit to reset relations with Japan.

The latest overture by the Yoon administration was the visit to Tōkyō by Foreign Minister Park Jin. Ahead of the visit, Professor Brad Glosserman of Tama University sounded a hopeful note in The Japan Times. He projected that “a good visit…could reset a relationship that has been on the rocks for far too long, and in so doing, produce a critical shift in the regional balance of power.” Since then, public reporting on Foreign Minister Park’s meetings with Japanese leaders suggests they went well – including that the prime minister told him that he “looks forward to dialogue continuing in the future,” according to the Hankyoreh newspaper.

However, compensation for forced Korean labor during the Japanese occupation may torpedo the nascent Yoon efforts. The Hankyoreh added that Foreign Minister Park told Prime Minister Kishida that Korea would “work to find an appropriate course of action before liquidation of [the assets] of Japanese companies,” and that it hoped Japan would respond “in good faith.” To this end, the Yoon government has convened a public-private task force on the matter, and is reportedly is considering a fund that would be able to pay reparations to the former laborers. This would avoid the liquidation of Japanese company assets, something that the Japanese government has adamantly warned against. Dr. Jeong-ho Roh, director of the Center for Korean Legal Studies at Columbia Law School, explains that this fund could be useful to satisfy both Korean legal obligations, as well as Japanese political demands, under the legal principle of subrogation. In this case, the fund would subrogate the obligations of the Japanese companies to compensate the Korean forced laborers. “I think it’s a brilliant idea, and it works, and it’s legal, you can do it,” said Dr. Roh.

Healing the rift in bilateral relations, however, is not just a matter of money. It also touches on the longstanding Korean desire for an apology from Japan. Korean civic groups protested outside of the presidential offices at the end of July, accusing the Yoon government of having “neither principle nor plan” when it comes to Japan. The Hankyoreh newspaper quoted the umbrella group Action for Historical Justice and Peace Between South Korea and Japan as also saying that the Yoon government “consistently bowed low and humiliated itself through its diplomacy, offering anything and everything according to Japan’s demands.” Dr. Roh says the focus on the compensation for the former laborers is a distraction. “The problem here is not a monetary issue, but one of owning the historical wrong that was done to these victims,” he said.

If better Korea-Japan relations hinges on an apology, then perhaps optimism for the Yoon administration is premature. Japan has made numerous apologies for its conduct during the first half of the 20th century, such as the 1993 Kono Statement, and the 1995 Maruyama Statement. In the celebrated 1998 Obuchi-Kim statement, Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō acknowledged that Japan caused “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule, and expressed his deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.” “Japan feels it’s apologized numerous times, while Korea feels that either Japan has never apologized or that the apologies lacked ‘sincerity in their heart,'” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. When asked if Korea could just tell Japan what to say, or even speculate on what an acceptable apology would look like, he says his Korean interlocutors say that would undermine the sincerity of statement. “Instead, Japan must on its own initiative come up with the words which would satisfy the South Korean desire for reconciliation,” said Mr. Klingner.

While Japan has reacted cordially to the Yoon government so far, it’s not clear how much of a willing dance partner Prime Minister Kishida can be. Dr. Glosserman points to the recent upper house election in Japan, which saw the ruling coalition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, maintain its dominance in the chamber. “The LDP’s win in [the House of Councillors election] gave Kishida a mandate he could use to pursue his own foreign policy agenda,” he writes. But other experts are concerned that the intra-party factions of the LDP do not favor Prime Minister Kishida, given his faction’s relatively smaller size and stature. “He will need the support from this biggest faction to push his policy agenda forward,” said Yuki Tatsumi, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. “That’ll require very tough intra-party politics management for Prime Minister Kishida.”

Just as only Nixon could go to China, Mr. Abe’s support would be needed for Japan’s response to a Korean proposal. But with his death, the more hardline elements in the LDP have become unconstrained. Ms. Tatsumi points out that if Mr. Abe gave his blessing to a deal reached with Korea, “the conservative wing of the LDP would just shut up and follow.” But without Mr. Abe’s imprimatur, “there’s going to be lot of voices of dissent unafraid,” said Ms. Tatsumi. “That really puts Prime Minister Kishida in a very tough position.”

In order to respond to domestic critics of the other side, leaders in Seoul and Tōkyō should continue to look for areas of common interest. National security was formerly the realm of robust cooperation, and both Korea and Japan seem to be working to restore that atmosphere. Both were among the 26 states that participated in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise hosted by the U.S. in Hawaii in June. The following month, the U.S. 8th Army hosted a “trilateral symposium” of American, Korean, and Japanese junior officers at Camp Humphreys in Korea. Dr. Sonya Finley, a professor at the National War College in Washington, says these types of “quick wins” could be helpful to give politicians and bureaucrats the space they need to negotiate. “Both leaders should find ways to understand and address their own population’s concerns in ways that avoid aggravating the existing bilateral relations and the known trigger points,” she said.

With such deep challenges, it is hard to be optimistic President Yoon will be successful in threading the needle when it comes to relations with Japan. However, some experts have hope. “I look at this as an opportunity to, in fact, come to an agreement,” said Dr. Roh. Whether it be the conflict in Ukraine, an increasingly assertive China, or dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Korea and Japan have far more to gain through cooperation than competition. “It’s pretty clear that both parties have come to the edge of the precipice,” said Dr. Roh. “Now the question is, is there a middle ground that we can find a compromise on?”

Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Shutterstock.

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