Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi attended Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony of South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol.
The decision to send the nation’s foreign minister, rather than its prime minister, was the right one because the choice seems to reflect the cautious optimism that Japan’s general public has held so far regarding South Korea.
The prevailing view in Japan goes something like this: Even if President Yoon wants to improve bilateral relations with Japan, the ball is not in Tokyo’s court — words are important, but if they are not accompanied by actions, there is no way for Japan to take the initiative.
In his inaugural speech, Yoon did not mention specific foreign policy measures such as improving relations between Japan and South Korea or strengthening the alliance with the U.S. Following Hayashi’s meeting with his new counterpart and a courtesy call with the new president, neither side went out of its way to describe those meetings in detail.
Hayashi told Yoon, “When the rule-based international order is threatened, a strategic partnership between Japan and South Korea has never been more necessary and the improvement of our bilateral relations cannot wait.” President Yoon only stated that he values the Japan-South Korea relationship and would like to maintain close communication in the future.
U.S. President Joe Biden will visit Seoul next weekend, perhaps with a strong hope that South Korea’s new president will change the diplomatic atmosphere. Daniel Sneider, a lecturer on international policy at Stanford University, wrote in the East Asian Forum in April that “any movement forward on historical issues” requires both Japan and South Korea to take specific measures.
Sneider suggests that Japan must “unambiguously reaffirm” all the previous official statements on historical issues and “lift export controls.” On South Korea, he said Yoon should “embrace the legal authority of the 1965 treaty,” including the issue of “property and claims,” and “restore the legitimacy” of the December 2015 “comfort women” agreement.
Sneider is right. But, in my humble opinion, he may be confusing results with preconditions in negotiations. The measures he suggested will be the endgame of serious negotiations between Japan and South Korea.
The problem is that neither Tokyo nor Seoul can make such concessions in advance. As a veteran of diplomatic negotiations, I will lay out some of my suggestions here.
When two parties negotiate with each other, each party has four options: to make concessions to the satisfaction of the other; to make certain concessions subject to conditions; to make rhetorical flourishes but no substantive concessions; or to make no concessions at all.
If each party is reluctant to make concessions, there are only three likely scenarios that can happen.
The first is when both sides make either full or conditional concessions. In this case, negotiators may reach an agreement with relative ease, although as soon as they return home, the agreement may collapse because the general public may not approve.
The best examples of this occurring are the strategic partnership agreement reached between Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 1998 or the 2015 deal on the issue of “comfort women,” those women and girls who were forced or coerced into Japan’s wartime brothel system under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty, which was supposed to have been “resolved finally and irreversibly.”
The second scenario is when one party is ready to make full or conditional concessions while the other makes no real concessions of substance. In such cases, negotiators may find it either difficult or almost impossible to reach an agreement or there may be no negotiations in the first place. Unfortunately, this has often been a reality of Japanese and South Korean relations since 1945.
The third is when neither party is willing to make even minimum concessions. This is in fact a nonstarter and there will be no agreement reached no matter how often the parties may convene and talk to each other. This is a situation that Tokyo and Seoul have found themselves in since 2019 when Japan introduced tighter restrictions on specific exports to South Korea.
Unfortunately, given the current circumstances surrounding the administrations in Tokyo and Seoul, it cannot be expected that the first scenario will take place anytime soon, while the two sides must find an exit from the third scenario and at least come back to the second.
Then, the focal point is how each party can and will be willing to make meaningful concessions to the satisfaction of the other without alienating each party’s general public. It is easy to discuss but difficult to implement.
That is especially so when bilateral relations have deteriorated so much since 2019. The governments of the two nations, unfortunately, have had more disagreements than agreements for the past 75 years.
Is there any way out then? Of course, there is. Based on personal experience, the best option, ironically enough, is not always to try to convince the other party to change its position.
In the 1990s, during Japan-South Korea foreign ministers’ meetings, which I had the privilege to attend, I witnessed that the ministers knew how to agree to disagree.
In those meetings, for example, the two sides would raise the issue of the Takeshima Islands, known as Dokdo by South Korea. Each side stated its official position but at the end of the day they agreed to disagree. That was the wisdom seasoned political leaders both in Japan and South Korea seemed to possess at that time.
Unfortunately, both sides must have either forgotten the wisdom of the 1990s or have become obsessed with the details of outstanding historical issues that may never be resolved. It is time for the two to depoliticize their relations and work on strategically important common security issues.
That said, for the time being, Tokyo will just have to wait and see. Both Japan and South Korea must think big but start small. If Tokyo really wishes to have better relations with Seoul, it needs to act with “more haste, less speed.”
Japan should spend more time trying to understand what the South Koreans really want before it enters into serious negotiations with that nation’s new leadership.