Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.04.07

Kishida warmly welcomes South Korea's president to Tokyo

Will the meeting change the course of the two nations' tumultuous relations?

the Japan Times on March 17th, 2023

On March 16, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol paid his first visit to Tokyo since taking office.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warmly welcomed his counterpart from Seoul. The two leaders held their summit, gave a joint news conference and enjoyed a dinner that included omurice (omelet rice), a favorite of Yoon’s.

What happened to the once hopelessly tumultuous Japan-South Korea relations? The following are some very personal and tentative observations.

What was the essence of Yoon’s visit to Japan? When asked by a New York Times reporter prior to his visit, I replied that this is going to be a “beautiful piece of diplomatic art” jointly planned and produced by seasoned diplomats and politicians from both countries. Those professionals, who well know each other’s domestic politics, have worked together to untangle the tortuous bilateral relations.

Both the Japanese and South Korean diplomats involved in the negotiations are well versed in the joint history of the two nations. Immediately after the inauguration of the Yoon administration, they must have started carefully discussing various options behind the scenes in search of solutions to solve the ongoing issues. Fortunately, they seem to have succeeded in convincing top political leaders on both sides that doing so was in the best interest of all.

I do not know the details of the negotiations and, if I did, I would still not be able to write about it. That said, immediately after Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022, Kishida reportedly instructed the Foreign Ministry, saying, “I would like to resume shuttle diplomacy in which the leaders visit each other. I want to remove the thorn both in Japan and South Korea (relations).”

At first glance, Kishida’s approach may look different from that of the Shinzo Abe administration. Kishida is very orthodox and there seemed to be no “secret envoy” diplomacy led by the Prime Minister’s Office this time. In my experience, secret envoys are not always effective. Professional negotiations through diplomatic channels, after all, can often be more successful. Perhaps this time is no exception.

Was Prime Minister Kishida unable to make a decision? No, he just didn’t dare to make a decision in haste. Some critics claimed that Yoon “couldn’t wait” for Kishida, who “couldn’t make up his mind.” Such statements are wrong. Reportedly, Kishida had often instructed the Foreign Ministry saying, “What Japan cannot do, that part will not change, but put it all together somehow.”

Kishida did not do “what Japan cannot do.” He did not have to. Japan’s basic position was that the ball was in South Korea’s court, and Tokyo kept asking Seoul to come up with an acceptable solution. As a result, I believe that Japan made the right, and flexible, decision in the end while adhering to its non-negotiable principles.

Did Japan’s diplomacy go as it planned? No, the Japanese side was surprised by South Korea’s conciliatory tone. A senior Foreign Ministry official reportedly said, “When the South Koreans explained their solution to resolving the icy ties between the two countries, I honestly thought, ‘Wow, well done for the right decision!’” In fact, Tokyo was rather pessimistic. Another Foreign Ministry official reportedly said, “By the fall (of last year), I thought it would be too late.”

A senior official at the Prime Minister’s Office also said: “There were times when Japan and South Korea just couldn’t come to an agreement on what kind of package they wanted to make. The atmosphere was such that if things continued as they were, the agreement would collapse or break down.” This is the reason why it can hardly be called a “big victory” for Japan.

Were Japan’s concessions too little? In normal diplomatic negotiations, both sides would naturally have to make reasonable concessions to reach an agreement. The latest Japan-South Korea negotiations, however, are different. This time, the negotiations started from a “minus,” because the South Korean Supreme Court, for the sake of domestic politics, rejected the essence of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

The denying of legal stability and consistency that had built up over time in East Asia since the end of World War II is hardly an act of a nation of universal values, including the rule of law. Japan, however, has no intention of interfering in South Korea’s internal affairs because Tokyo sees South Korea as a democratic nation, with its separation of the three branches of the government.

If so, it would make sense for South Korea’s executive branch, from the perspective of respecting international law, to take appropriate measures to “check-and-balance” judgments by the judicial branch. In this sense, recent comments by the Yoon administration demonstrates that Korea is a mature democracy governed by the rule of law.

Will South Korea move the goal posts again? Kishida reportedly said, “negotiations should be cautious.” This is because Kishida was the foreign minister at the time of the 2015 agreement that was meant to confirm that the “comfort women” issue — that is, women who were forced or coerced into Japan’s wartime brothel system under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty — had been resolved “finally and irreversibly,” but which was later scrapped by the South Korean side. It is Kishida himself who has been most concerned about the possibility of the goal posts being moved again.

The Japanese side reportedly insisted on the “right of recourse” to the very end. The goal posts could be moved again if it is not guaranteed that the Korean foundation that was organized to handle compensation issues for the laborers will not exercise the “right to seek reimbursement” from Japanese companies after payments are made. However, Yoon only stated in Tokyo that he did not “envision” the issue (of exercising the right).

It will be up to future generations of historians to decide whether to evaluate this as “strategic ambiguity” or a harbinger of further “goal post-moving.” Until then, we can only hope that it is the former. Japan-Korea relations will continue to experience twists and turns, but no matter how many times the goal posts are moved, Japan should continue to adhere to the principles it did this time.