The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Shuttle diplomacy

Japan’s PM Kishida expected to help improve complicated ties with Korea

By Korea Herald

Published : May 4, 2023 - 05:30

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to pay a two-day visit to South Korea this weekend amid growing attention about whether the Japanese leader will respond in kind to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s friendly gesture.

Kishida’s visit to Seoul -- the first bilateral visit by a Japanese leader in 12 years -- was initiated by Yoon’s efforts to improve the badly damaged ties between the two countries in recent years over historical and economic disputes.

In March, Yoon flew to Tokyo and offered breakthrough proposals over the compensation to the Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor in a bid to put the strained relations back on track during his summit with Kishida.

Kishida’s trip to Seoul is now widely expected to help restore so-called “shuttle diplomacy” between the two neighboring countries and thaw the frosty relations at a time when Korea, the US and Japan need to work together to counter the intensifying nuclear threats from North Korea.

Until recently, the trilateral cooperation, eagerly encouraged by the US, made little progress since Korea and Japan remained locked in abrasive clashes over bilateral issues, one of which involves Japan’s mobilization of Korean workers during the 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Korea-Japan relations hit an abysmal low after the ruling of Korea’s top court in October 2018 ordering two Japanese firms to pay compensation to the Korean plaintiffs for their unpaid labor. Around 780,000 Koreans were conscripted into forced labor by Japan during its occupation of the peninsula, in addition to the Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.

Unsurprisingly, Japan vigorously protested the ruling and claimed that it has no obligation whatsoever for such compensation, citing the 1965 reparations deal between the two nations.

To break the deadlock, Yoon made the first move before he visited Tokyo, announcing that the Korean government would compensate Korean victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor without direct contributions from the Japanese companies involved.

Yoon’s gesture toward Japan was politically risky at home, as forced labor victims did not welcome the move as Japanese firms refused to offer any apology, much less compensation. Local critics questioned why it should be Korea to offer a solution while Japan stays indifferent to any sort of compromise.

Against this backdrop, there is a lot at stake for Kishida’s visit to Seoul, with eyes on the level of reciprocity shown towards Yoon in their concerted endeavor to move forward together by improving the complex bilateral ties.

Japanese media outlets often claim that “the ball is in South Korea’s court” over the thorny historical conflicts without recognizing the responsibility of the Japanese government. This time around, the ball is in Japan’s court.

But the chance Kishida will meet Korea’s expectations is slim. Japanese leaders have long repeated the mantra that everything had already been settled through the 1965 deal and refused to offer a formal apology in specific terms about Japan’s wartime crimes against Koreans.

In fact, Kishida and his predecessors have reflected the general sentiment of the Japanese people, many of whom are hostile toward Korea for demanding an apology and compensation. For Koreans, it is hard to understand why Japan refuses to face its own past filled with violent aggression, let alone its continued claim over the Dokdo islets.

If the past is any guide, Kishida is unlikely to show a substantially different and progressive stance over the historical issues during his visit. But expectations are high that Kishida may agree with Yoon to join forces to enhance bilateral relations on the issues of security and the economy.

The Yoon-Kishida summit is set to take place about a week after Yoon returned from his summit with US President Joe Biden in Washington. During Yoon’s visit to Washington, the two nations agreed that the US would strengthen its extended deterrence commitment to Korea. In this regard, Kishida’s role to help firm up the trilateral relations between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo on security in East Asia is crucial.

Kishida also needs to clear bilateral obstacles in other fields, such as restoring Korea's white list status in trade, before accelerating shuttle diplomacy to jointly confront North Korea’s nuclear missile threats. Again, the ball is now in Kishida’s court.