Korean experts call Yoon-Kishida summit a one-sided win for Japan

Posted on : 2023-03-17 17:12 KST Modified on : 2023-03-17 17:12 KST
Yoon is expected to face a considerable backlash from the South Korean public after “corresponding measures” from Japan on the issue of forced labor compensation failed to materialize
President Yoon Suk-yeol of Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan stand for their respective national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo on March 16. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan stand for their respective national anthems during a welcome ceremony at the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo on March 16. (Yonhap)

Thursday’s summit between President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan is being described by observers as “one-way traffic,” with only Japan’s position carrying the day.

Yoon touted the summit’s achievements in terms of future economic prospects, security, and private interchange, stressing that “the national interests of South Korea and Japan are not in a zero-sum relationship.” But he is expected to face a considerable backlash from the South Korean public in response.

In a joint press conference immediately after the summit, Yoon and Kishida spoke of their agreement on increasing communication between their governments in various areas. This included the resumption of reciprocal visits (shuttle diplomacy) between leaders, the relaxation of Japanese export restrictions on advanced semiconductor materials, and the establishment of a “future partnership fund” by businesses on both sides, along with efforts in the areas of politics, economy, and culture.

Making reference to a “free and open” international order for the Pacific region based on shared Indo-Pacific strategy perceptions, the two leaders signaled they would be taking part actively in the US-led strategy to contain China.

But their remarks included no reference to the issue that was attracting the most attention: “corresponding measures” from Japan for the South Korean government’s solution of third-party compensation to survivors of forced labor mobilization during Japan’s occupation, including an apology and the participation of the Japanese companies responsible.

During the press conference, Kishida offered no direct apology, while referring to victims of forced mobilization as “workers from the Korean Peninsula.” He also made no remarks about the responsible Japanese companies taking part in their compensation.

Kishida’s mention of “inheriting the position of past Cabinets” echoed his previous remarks before the House of Councillors Committee on Budget on March 6, shortly after South Korea announced its “solution.”

At the same time, he stressed that the question of whether bilateral relations can be improved hinges on South Korea’s implementation of that solution.

“I look forward to interchange expanding vigorously between our two countries in the areas of politics, economy, and culture as measures are executed,” he said in reference to South Korea’s plan to resolve the issue.

Describing the South Korean government’s proposed solution of third-party compensation as an effort to “restore bilateral relations that had been in a difficult state,” he sent the message that the root cause behind the strain in their relationship was the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to compensation of forced labor mobilization victims.

The two leaders also stressed that the South Korean government would not be claiming indemnity rights from the Japanese companies responsible for forced labor mobilization.

In an interview published Wednesday in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, Yoon referred to the third-party compensation plan as a “solution that prevents exercising of the right to indemnity later.” On Thursday, he explained that such an exercise “would return everything to where it started.”

“We are not envisioning any exercise of indemnity rights,” he added.

He also doubled down on his remarks disregarding the principle of separation of powers, stating that the Supreme Court ruling differed from the South Korean government’s position.

Speaking of the possibility of South Korea asserting indemnity rights, Kishida likewise said, “My understanding is that this will not be happening.”

After citing the North Korean nuclear threat and the need to respond to complex global crises as a basis for the rush to announce his “solution” on the forced labor issue, Yoon continued making abstract references to the “national interest” on Thursday.

When asked by a reporter what was gained from the summit in terms of South Korea’s national interest, he said, “The national interests of South Korea and Japan are not in a zero-sum relationship.”

“I see national interests as allowing for ‘win-win’ scenarios. If our bilateral relationship can be normalized and developed thanks to this solution announcement [on the forced labor compensation issue], this will help greatly in our response to security crisis issues,” he continued.

“I think we both have a great deal to gain from more active cultural, artistic, and academic exchange between our publics,” he added.

He went on to say, “Our national interest is a shared interest with Japan’s, not one that is in conflict with it.”

Yoon also made no mention of “corresponding measures” from Japan, including an apology or participation in compensation. Indeed, he accepted Tokyo’s demands to such an extent that Kishida spoke of him having “once again shown strong support” in the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.

For this reason, analysts are describing the situation with South Korea-Japan relations as a return to the Cold War era and its exchanges of economic and security measures for concessions on historical issues.

Experts characterized the outcome of the summit as “disappointing.”

Sungkonghoe University professor Yang Kee-ho referred to the summit outcome as “one-way traffic that reflected only Japan’s positions, while almost none of South Korea’s demands were accepted.”

Lee Su-hoon, who formerly served as South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, said, “The ‘solution’ announced on March 6 was a disaster, and since this summit was based on it, there was never anything to be expected from it.”

“With the collapse of ‘confronting the past’ as an overarching principle in diplomacy with Japan, whatever security and economic cooperation we pursue now is a house of cards,” he stressed.

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter; Shin Hyeong-cheol, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter

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