A new beginning
: Summit breaks ground for cooperation with Japan; follow-up meetings needed
President Yoon Suk Yeol returned home Friday night from his two-day visit to Japan.
Through his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, he kick-started summit diplomacy with Japan after a 12-year hiatus.
The summit is a turning point in bilateral relations and a new starting point for mutual visits by the leaders of both countries.
Yoon made a difficult first move to normalize South Korea's relations with Japan. The summit owes much to his bold decision.
The Yoon administration proposed to compensate victims of Japan's wartime forced labor with funds of an envisioned government-affiliated foundation. The proposal was a solution to the source of frosty ties between the two countries; the South Korean Supreme Court's 2018 ruling that responsible Japanese companies should pay compensation to Korean victims of forced labor.
Yoon emphasized the proposal was a decision for future-oriented cooperation. He said that if South Korea demands reimbursement, everything will come to naught.
The solution caused a strong backlash at home. Some of the victims, civic groups and opposition parties slammed the proposal immediately and called the summit humiliating.
Koreans watched to see if Kishida would allude to self-reflection or an apology during Yoon's visit to Japan. But there was no mention of such words. Instead, Kishida said he "inherits the historical awareness of the past Japanese cabinets."
It is understood that the historic awareness includes the South Korea-Japan joint declaration of 1998 adopted by Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. In the declaration, Obuchi acknowledged the "tremendous damage and suffering to the Korean people during Japan's colonial rule" and expressed "deep remorse and heartfelt apology." The absence of Kishida's concrete expression fell short of some Koreans' expectations, but there is no reason for impatience in breaking the ice.
The troubled relations between South Korea and Japan cannot remain bound by the past. Historical disputes cannot be settled over the course of a single summit.
First of all, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula has deteriorated with North Korea strengthening its ability to deliver nuclear attacks. It has developed nuclear bombs and kept upgrading its missiles. It fired an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the sea off its eastern coast shortly before Yoon's departure for Japan.
Cooperation to normalize the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which was terminated as the Moon Jae-in administration refused to extend it, will serve the security interests of both countries.
Changes in international order driven by US-China strategic competition and Russia's invasion of Ukraine are demanding the stronger cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the United States in dealing with North Korea, China and Russia.
Any agreements to resolve economic issues between South Korea and Japan and set up a cooperative platform are welcome news.
The door for cooperation has now been opened, but Seoul and Tokyo have a long way to go. Touchy issues including age-old historical disputes can stimulate mutual distrust and disrupt any fence-mending.
Condemnation of the compensation plan at home is not calming down. Two victims of Japan's wartime forced labor refused to receive compensation under the government proposal and filed a lawsuit seeking to collect compensation from the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' affiliate in South Korea. The ruling may impact efforts to improve bilateral ties, depending on its outcome.
Opposition parties, together with civic and labor groups, are bashing the compensation plan and the summit, stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment.
Yoon's visit to Japan has broken ground for the restoration of bilateral relations, but, in order to overcome the barriers, Yoon must meet Kishida often to resolve differences gradually and at the same time try to persuade the Korean people on the inevitability of cooperation with Japan.
Both countries must be ready for follow-up meetings to work out plans for substantial cooperation.
South Korea and Japan are at a new beginning. Neither side should expect too much from the first attempt at mending ties. If the two nations hold further summits and build mutual trust, unresolved issues may be resolved.