[News Analysis] Bumpy road ahead for S. Korea-Japan relations

Posted on : 2021-02-18 17:20 KST Modified on : 2021-02-18 17:20 KST
Japan remains chilly despite South Korean efforts to mend the relationship
South Korean President Moon Jae-in applauds after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama (seen in the background) sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement during the signing ceremony held via teleconference on Nov. 15, 2020. (provided by the Blue House)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in applauds after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama (seen in the background) sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement during the signing ceremony held via teleconference on Nov. 15, 2020. (provided by the Blue House)

Tokyo remains unchanged in its chilly attitude toward South Korea, despite Seoul's efforts to improve relations ever since Yoshihide Suga took office as Japan's Prime Minister last September.

For all the good faith efforts South Korea is making to mend ties, Japan's stringent demands suggest their relations are unlikely to improve this year.

On his fourth day after taking office as South Korea's new minister of foreign affairs on Feb. 8, Chung Eui-yong began making active efforts to communicate with neighboring countries. Over the Lunar New Year holiday on Feb. 12, he had telephone calls with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. On Feb. 16, he had his first telephone conversation with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But among the Korean Peninsula's key neighbors, no date has yet been set for a telephone conversation between Chung and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. The reason comes down to Japan's frosty stance.

Japan's expressions of discontent with South Korea have become increasingly overt. On Jan. 27, outgoing Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koji Tomita headed for his new post in the US — but his successor Koichi Aiboshi has yet to officially take over more than 20 days later.

South Korean Ambassador to Japan Kang Chang-il arrived in Tokyo on Jan. 22. But amid the chilly response from Tokyo, he hasn’t managed to meet even with Motegi, let alone Suga.

South Korea-Japan relations were in a similarly dire state in May 2019 when Nam Gwan-pyo took over as ambassador. However, he was still able to meet with then-Foreign Minister Taro Kono four days after taking office and then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 12 days after taking office.

Ultimately, it was the number two figure in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs — Vice Minister Takeo Akiba — who agreed to a meeting on the afternoon of Feb. 12 to accept Kang's credentials. But Akiba cut the meeting with Kang short after just 10 minutes.

Explaining the Japanese government's attitude on Feb. 15, Kyodo News said, "The message is that [Japan] will not be regarding South Korea as a dialogue partner until it changes its approach of dredging up historical matters." It also noted the "growing 'anti-Korea' mood within the Suga administration."

Describing the mood in the Japanese prime minister's office, the agency shared a cynical response from a senior Japanese official, who said there was "no sense of a desire to improve [South Korea-Japan relations] on the Moon Jae-in administration's part" and questioned whether there was "any rush to meet with them."

The same official was quoted as saying that even if Chung and Motegi were to meet, they were unlikely to talk about much more than "how cold the weather is."

But in its way, Seoul has been making various efforts to improve ties with Tokyo since Suga took office in September of last year. Moon's remarks in a New Year's press conference on Jan. 18 were a particular break from his past approach.

Commenting on a Jan. 8 ruling by a Seoul district court recognizing the Japanese government's responsibility for compensating victims of military sexual slavery, Moon said he was "frankly a bit thrown." Regarding Japan's concerns about the liquidation of assets seized from Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor mobilization, he said, "I don't think the way the ruling is being implemented — such as liquidation based on compulsory execution — is a desirable approach between South Korea and Japan."

His remarks showed more consideration for Tokyo's position than he had in his 2019 New Year's press conference, where he insisted that the government "cannot interfere in judicial decisions."

Even so, the Japanese government's attitude remained cold. When asked on Jan. 19 for his opinion on Moon's statements, Motegi said, "We're in a situation where for the past several years, South Korea has reneged on its international pledges and declined to honor its agreements with other countries."

"Under the circumstances, it's difficult to rate [the remarks positively] based simply on the fact that he indicated South Korea's willingness to resolve issues. We will reserve judgment until after we've seen concrete suggestions from South Korea on how to resolve issues," he continued — sending the message that Tokyo wants concrete action rather than words.

Taken together, the remarks from Suga and other top Japanese officials suggest that Tokyo hopes Seoul will take it upon itself to overturn the main conclusion reached by the South Korean Supreme Court in its October 2018 ruling recognizing the liability of Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced mobilization during Korea's occupation. Rather than a diplomatic compromise, Japan is looking for unilateral concessions.

But meeting these demands from Japan would mean undermining some of the core principles maintained by the Moon administration to date, including an insistence on complying with Supreme Court rulings and on reaching diplomatic solutions supported by the plaintiffs in historically related cases.

If Japan continues with its current chilly demeanor, the South Korean government will find itself with less room to maneuver. In that sense, the likelihood of improving South Korea-Japan relations during the coming year appears slim.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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