Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.12.07

Tokyo-Seoul morass awaits Biden White House

the japan times on November 18, 2020

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. Korean Peninsula

Is this a serious South Korean diplomatic offensive or a perfectly innocent flirtation by Seoul in order to get Tokyo’s attention? “To mend the relationship with Tokyo, it is imperative to have diplomatic negotiations,” South Korea’s conservative daily Chosun-ilbo’s editorial urged.

It’s difficult to make an objective judgment now given my position in the government, but the following is what has reportedly happened over the past seven days:

– On Nov. 10, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) Director Park Jie-won came to Tokyo and met with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

– On Nov. 13, a visiting delegation of the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ League, together with their Japanese counterparts, met with Suga.

– On Nov. 14, South Korean President Moon Jae-in extended his warm greetings to Mr. Suga in a virtual meeting during the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Still, some hasty South Korean media outlets reported that the NIS director “proposed” to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga “a summit of the leaders of the United States, Japan and the two Koreas during the Tokyo Olympics next year.” Japan’s Foreign Ministry, in its official statement, did not refer to such a proposal.

Moon also made a similar comment during the virtual EAS meeting by stating “South Korea has proposed to the leaders of East Asia that we all work closely to ensure high levels of quarantine and security during the two upcoming Olympic Games in 2021, Tokyo, and in 2022, Beijing (the Winter Games),” which puzzled many in Tokyo.

Was Moon suggesting diplomatic negotiations are needed to solve outstanding bilateral issues with Japan? Will a four-party summit meeting really work in Tokyo? Does Japan need South Korea in order to hold successful games? And, finally, will a U.S. President Joe Biden mediate between Japan and South Korea? The following are my personal thoughts:

Is President Moon willing to talk to Prime Minister Suga?

I sincerely hope so and I suppose he is. There are more important questions, however, such as what issues are to be addressed first and where do the negotiations start. When he met with South Korea’s NIS Director Park last week, Suga called on South Korea to “take the initiative in creating an opportunity to restore healthy bilateral relations.”

The Japanese prime minister also told the delegation of South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ League that “Our bilateral relations are extremely strained over wartime labor and other issues. While planning to improve the bilateral ties, Japan wishes the South Korean side to present its views.” What Mr. Suga had in mind must be the 1965 Basic Treaty, which confirms that the properties, rights and claims between the two nations and their peoples “have been settled completely and finally.”

Will a four-party summit meeting in Tokyo work?

The lesson we learned from the series of U.S.-North Korea summits in 2018-2019 was that, having not reached an agreement on the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization, the meetings were meaningless no matter how many were held. Even if the four leaders met in Tokyo, it would be pointless unless they agreed on essential issues, such as wartime labor or denuclearization.

Do the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games need South Korea to succeed?

Yes, South Korea is important if Japan wants to hold successful games. With that said, every single participating country is important for their success. It would be great if the four-party summit were held in Tokyo — but even if it were not, it is still possible to host the games successfully.

Will South Korea move the goalposts again?

That is the biggest concern on the part of Japan. In 1965, Tokyo and Seoul concluded a basic treaty to normalize bilateral relations. After long and tough negotiations, they finally agreed to settle the issue of compensation for damages caused during the colonial era, with Tokyo providing $500 million in economic aid in a one-time deal.

In 1995, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama took the historic step of offering an apology for the war and colonization in Asia. The statement has been repeatedly upheld by successive Japanese prime ministers, including Mr. Shinzo Abe.

In October 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung made a historic state visit to Japan. At the summit meeting, he and then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi issued the Joint Korea-Japan Declaration of a New Partnership for the 21st Century. President Kim also delivered a moving speech at the Japanese Diet.

He said, “Through the joint declaration, Japan expressed deep regret and apologies for the past, and I accepted it as an earnest expression of the Japanese government’s desire for reconciliation between our two peoples and for good neighborly and friendly relations.”

President Kim went on to say that “I firmly believe that this declaration will settle the issue of recognizing the past history between the governments of our countries.” After that, the issue of comfort women wasn’t raised again until a bilateral summit meeting in 20131.

In 1995, the Japanese people raised millions of dollars for the Asian Women’s Fund, with the intention of compensating so-called “comfort women,” South Korean and other women who suffered in brothels set up for the Japanese military before and during World War II. In 2015, Japan and South Korea agreed to solve this issue “finally and irreversibly.” Unfortunately, the government of South Korea has often moved the goalpost after agreements were reached and commitments made.

Will Washington mediate on bilateral issues between Tokyo and Seoul?

Some in Seoul hope that Biden is “highly interested in international cooperation and improvements in the Seoul-Tokyo relationship.” I sincerely hope so, too. The reality, however, is that while some issues can be mediated by the United States, others unfortunately cannot.

The General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, was an easy one for Washington to mediate because U.S., South Korean and Japanese security issues were involved. More difficult ones are historical in nature, such as who holds sovereignty over Takeshima Island. Will Biden try to mediate? Yes, and he can if he wants to. Will he succeed? Probably not.

The U.S. must avoid shallow arguments, which would only lead to a further deterioration in Japan and South Korea’s bilateral relations. I sincerely hope that Biden knows how difficult the situation is, otherwise, Washington may lose both Tokyo and Seoul simultaneously.