Tokyo/Seoul: Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Seoul yesterday to meet South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol amidst a sceptical public regarding the leaders’ pursuit of deeper ties in the face of nuclear threats from North Korea and China’s increasing assertiveness. Kishida’s bilateral visit marks the first by a Japanese leader to Seoul in 12 years, responding to Yoon’s trip to Tokyo in March. During that meeting, they aimed to resolve historical disputes that have dictated Japan-South Korea relations for years.
Before departing, Kishida mentioned his hope for “an open discussion based on a relationship of trust” with Yoon, without discussing specific topics. However, Yoon faces criticism domestically for giving more than has been received in his efforts to enhance relations with Japan. Yoon proposed that South Korean businesses, rather than Japanese companies ordered by a court, should compensate victims of wartime labour during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial occupation. South Korean officials hope that Kishida will reciprocate with a gesture and provide political support, although few anticipate any further formal apology for historical wrongs. Yoon himself has indicated that he does not believe that is necessary.
The summit’s focus is expected to centre on security cooperation in response to North Korea’s nuclear threats, stated Shin-wha Lee, a professor of international relations at Seoul-based Korea University. “Within the framework of the ‘Washington Declaration,’ which outlines plans to strengthen extended deterrence, Korea will explore ways to enhance the collaborative efforts with Japan,” she added.
“We have a lot of opportunities to cooperate when it comes to addressing the threat of North Korea” and securing a free and open Indo-Pacific, a Japanese foreign ministry official said. Tensions have grown between Washington and Beijing as China becomes more assertive in its territorial claims over Taiwan and in the South China Sea, while the US strengthens alliances across the Asia-Pacific. However, historical differences between South Korea and Japan may hinder the flourishing ties between their leaders.
A majority of South Koreans believe Japan has not sufficiently apologised for the atrocities committed during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, according to Lee. “They think that Prime Minister Kishida should show sincerity during his visit to South Korea, such as mentioning historical issues and expressing apologies,” she added.
Conversely, Japan is proceeding slowly, suggested Daniel Russel, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific. “Kishida is being careful not to go faster than his domestic politics permit,” he added, referring to the previous Korean government’s unilateral abrogation of a settlement on “comfort women” as a source of Japan’s wariness.
In 2015, South Korea and Japan reached a settlement where Tokyo issued an official apology to “comfort women” who say they were enslaved in wartime brothels and provided 1 billion yen (US$9.23 million) to a fund to help the victims. However, then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in decided to dissolve the fund in 2018, effectively scrapping the agreement as it did not sufficiently address victims’ concerns.
Nonetheless, South Korea is an “important neighbour that we must cooperate with on various global issues,” according to Japan’s foreign ministry. Kishida has invited Yoon to the Group of Seven summit, scheduled for later this month in Japan, and will hold trilateral talks with the US on the sidelines. Kishida is also urging trilateral discussions with China as early as this year, reported Kyodo last Friday, citing multiple unnamed diplomatic sources.
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