[News analysis] Turning point in NE Asia a window of opportunity for restoring S. Korea-Japan relations

Posted on : 2020-11-16 17:25 KST Modified on : 2020-11-16 17:25 KST
Moon directly addresses Suga by name during ASEAN Plus Three summit
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (second top right) partakes in a ASEAN Plus Three summit held via teleconference on Nov. 14. (provided by the Blue House)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (second top right) partakes in a ASEAN Plus Three summit held via teleconference on Nov. 14. (provided by the Blue House)

“I have the pleasure of welcoming the honorable chair, the leaders of each country, and in particular, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in took the unusual step of referring to Suga by name in his opening remarks for the ASEAN Plus Three summit hosted via teleconference by the Blue House on Nov. 14. Moon saved his personal greeting for Suga, even though the meeting was also attended by the leaders of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Moon had virtual meetups with Suga two days in a row: the ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Nov. 14 and then the signing ceremony for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Nov. 15.

Some analysts regard Moon’s personal greeting to Suga as a call for South Korea and Japan to improve their bilateral relations. The South Korean government’s pursuit of improved relations began after the resignation of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had run the two countries’ relationship into the ground with his distinctive emphasis on historical revisionism.

While Moon stressed the need to improve relations during his first phone call with Suga, Abe’s successor, on Sept. 24, Suga promised to uphold Abe’s foreign policy and to push South Korea to take “appropriate action” on pending disputes between the two countries.

After that, Seoul sought to improve relations during a trilateral summit with Japan and China that was supposed to be held in South Korea before the end of the year. But Japan wouldn’t budge on its refusal to attend the summit until South Korea promises not to liquidate the assets of Japanese companies that have been seized as compensation for South Korean victims of forced labor under the Japanese colonial occupation.

But the mood changed once again on Nov. 8, when it became clear that Joe Biden, who values trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan, had been elected president of the US. South Korea has argued that the two countries should seek to use the success of the Tokyo Olympics next summer as an opportunity for bilateral cooperation. It made that case in visits to Japan by Park Jie-won, director of the National Intelligence Service (Nov. 8-11), and Kim Jin-pyo, chair of the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union (Nov. 12-14), as well as during a bilateral vice ministers’ meeting on Nov. 12.

While Japan agrees in principle, it hasn’t backed down from its current stance that South Korea must be the one to create the conditions for improving relations.

However, both South Korea and Japan have urgent reasons to quickly wrap up their dispute. South Korea wants to reactivate the Korean Peninsula peace process after Biden’s inauguration as US president at the end of January 2021. If cooperation between South Korea and Japan can turn the Tokyo Games into a “Peace Olympics” on the lines of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, perhaps it could create an opportunity to put inter-Korean dialogue and the North Korea-US nuclear talks on the fast track, as in 2018.

Japan also strongly hopes that the Tokyo Games will be a success and will lead to the resolution of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens, which previous Japanese administrations have treated as a top priority. When asked during an appearance at the Budget Committee of the House of Councillors on Nov. 5 whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would visit Tokyo during the Olympics, Suga said he thought it would be a “good opportunity.” And during the ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Nov. 14, Suga reiterated his willingness to meet personally with Kim “without conditions.”

Now it all comes down to the two leaders. During a meeting with South Korean correspondents in Tokyo on Nov. 14, the day after meeting Suga, Kim Jin-pyo explained that he’d told Suga that the important thing is creating the conditions and environment in which Suga and Moon can make their choice since the details of the pending issues have all been brought up in previous working-level deliberations. Suga reportedly responded by saying he understood.

But if Japan remains intransigent on the requirements it has placed on holding a summit and if South Korea opts not to make a strategic decision on the grounds that the executive branch can’t interfere in judicial procedures, this unusual mood for dialogue could vanish in an instant.

By Gil Yun-hyung and Seo Young-ji, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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