On Sunday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held his second summit meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in as many months.
Kishida’s successful visit to Seoul, a positive step forward, at least in the short term, may not have been possible without the perfect combination of Seoul’s courageous political initiative, Tokyo’s balanced diplomatic response and Washington’s quiet cheerleading.
Yet the reaction of the Japanese media was rather unusual. In an editorial, the normally liberal, anti-authority Asahi Shimbun daily wrote, “Shuttle diplomacy is back on the track (and) it should be on after 12 years. Although some were cautious about his early visit to Seoul, Kishida himself expressed his willingness to reciprocate, and it was a wise decision of his.”
In contrast, the conservative Sankei Shimbun, which tends to defend the ruling party, was more skeptical. Its editorial stated: “It is questionable that Japan repeatedly apologizes at every summit meeting,” criticizing Kishida’s remarks that his “heart is aching” over Japan’s colonial rule and that “It is extremely regrettable that that was an erroneous statement.”
That said, the fact that such contrasting editorials were written is genuine proof that Kishida’s visit to Seoul was another successful piece of diplomatic art, which was highly sophisticated and well thought out in advance by seasoned politicians and diplomats on both sides.
Historically, with most nations and cultures, immediate neighbors have not always been easy to get along with or on friendly terms. This is because it is rare that neighbors at some point in the past have not come into conflict over territory or other issues. Such confrontations can be especially tense when the neighbors have similar cultural backgrounds but different national characteristics. Japan and South Korea’s relationship, unfortunately, is no exception.
On the other hand, there is an exception to this rule, and that is when both countries share common concerns or threats. When the security concerns shared by the two countries reach a culminating point, many previous issues of contention are often shelved. A typical example is that of Germany and France, both of which faced a common threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.
A Japanese pundit rightfully likened Kishida’s visit to that of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s in 1983, who moved to improve relations with Seoul as soon as he took office. At that time, it was the threat from the Soviet Union that prompted Nakasone to strengthen Japan-U.S.-South Korea cohesion. Now it is the threat from China and North Korea that has convinced Kishida to do the same.
Meanwhile, some Japanese experts on South Korea offered their speculation on bilateral concerns prior to the Kishida-Yoon summit meeting. Let us examine their points below.
The first was whether a joint declaration will be issued. Reportedly, there was a desire for a joint declaration within the South Korean government, but Japan was reluctant to do so. That said, the two leader’s joint news conference gives us clues. The fact that both leaders read from prepared texts and their remarks — obviously well prepared in advance — indicates that it’s likely a “de facto” joint statement, if not a “joint declaration.”
Second, another topic that was floated was whether Kishida would utter the words “remorse and apology” over history. Some Korean media outlets thought it was Tokyo’s turn to make concessions. Kishida, however, reiterated Japan’s “unwavering” commitment to upholding past stances on history, including the 1998 joint declaration that expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” but did not speak those words.
Instead, Kishida expressed his personal heart ache over the history of Japan’s domination over the Korean Peninsula.
For another, many in both Tokyo and Seoul wondered how many South Koreans would publicly demonstrate against Kishida’s visit. In the end, there were no large-scale disruptions. There was, though, a small rally held by some opposed to Kishida’s visit and a similar sized rally of people who came out to welcome the Japanese leader, and both took place in orderly fashion.
Similarly, there was some speculation on whether South Korea’s opposition lawmakers would meet with Kishida. It was believed by some that the nation’s opposition parties would boycott a meeting with the Japanese leader. Kishida, however, met with officials of the South Korea-Japan parliamentarian league, which included a leading opposition party lawmaker.
In a nutshell, all the above-mentioned concerns proved either unfounded or exaggerated. Japanese and South Korean relations seem to be moving in the right direction. With the threat from China and North Korea growing and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the Yoon administration seems to be determined to face reality. Hopefully, relations will improve for the time being.
Still, some 90% of Japan-South Korea diplomacy is dictated by domestic politics. That said however, this does not mean that all pending bilateral issues will be resolved. Of particular note, South Korea’s powerful, progressive, anti-American, anti-Japanese and pro-communist “386” generation are still in their 50s and will be politically active for at least another two decades.
This means that there is a good chance that an administration like the Moon Jae-in’s will come back to power in the foreseeable future. If this happens, we must be prepared for a repeat of the situation in which the goalposts are to be moved again and promises made between Japan and South Korea are to be reneged on. This is, of course, the bad news.
However, there is the good news that a generational shift within South Korea may also take place. In the future, there may emerge a new generation of more realistic and pragmatic young South Koreans who are by nature neither anti-Japanese nor pro-North Korean. It is extremely important to show them that improved bilateral ties will benefit both the South Koreans and the Japanese.
Even if Japan-South Korea relations should one day become strained again, the older generation will eventually retire from politics as happened in Japan. It is high time for pragmatic political leaders both in Japan and South Korea to start laying the groundwork for the welfare and prosperity of the younger generations in their respective nations.