South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, fourth left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, attend their bilateral meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on Thursday. Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Pool Photo via AP

Japan, S Korea leaders' mutual visits key to balanced diplomacy

By Keita Nakamura

The resumption of reciprocal visits by the leaders of Japan and South Korea may help the two Asian countries pave the way for adopting a well-balanced diplomatic strategy toward each other, foreign affairs experts said.

On Thursday, Yoon Suk Yeol became the first South Korean president to make a trip to Japan in 12 years and held talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, during which they agreed to restart mutual visits by the leaders.

The meeting came after the Yoon administration last week announced its solution to a wartime labor compensation dispute that had soured bilateral relations, eliciting a positive reaction from Japan.

While it remains to be seen whether South Korea will steadily implement the plan amid public opposition, Kishida and Yoon can spot potential problems between the two nations by regularly holding in-person talks and maintaining communications, the experts said.

The reciprocal visits by the leaders of Japan and South Korea, known as "shuttle diplomacy," were agreed to in 2004 by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then President Roh Moo Hyun.

Nevertheless, the practice had stalled since 2011, when then President Lee Myung Bak visited Kyoto but was at odds with then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda over the issue of Koreans who worked as "comfort women" in Japan's wartime military brothels.

After South Korea's top court in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp. -- to compensate plaintiffs for alleged forced labor during World War II, ties between Tokyo and Seoul plunged to the lowest point in decades.

Since Yoon replaced Moon Jae In, known for his anti-Japan position, as president in May 2022, Seoul has been trying to build a future-oriented relationship with Tokyo.

Naoko Kumagai, a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, said the reciprocal visits would allow Japan and South Korea to manage bilateral ties candidly and create conditions whereby matters of concern could be "nipped in the bud" at an early stage.

"Shuttle diplomacy will enable constant and close information sharing and communication between the two countries" and, therefore, should have been restarted "as soon as possible," she said.

Japan has been considering inviting Yoon as a guest to a Group of Seven summit scheduled for May in the western city of Hiroshima, diplomatic sources said, while Kishida voiced eagerness to visit South Korea "at an appropriate time."

Such plans emerged after Seoul decided on the solution to the wartime labor issue on March 6, which centers on a government-backed foundation paying compensation to former Korean laborers and their relatives on behalf of the two Japanese firms.

The two companies have refused to comply with the rulings, citing Tokyo's stance that all issues stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement.

After the Yoon administration unveiled the solution earlier this month, Kishida hailed it, but the announcement has triggered a backlash in South Korea as the plaintiffs have requested that Japan convey a fresh apology and pay compensation to them directly.

A recent opinion poll conducted by a South Korean research firm showed that nearly 60 percent of respondents did not favor the proposal, while 35 percent supported it.

Kumagai, well versed in international relations and wartime compensation issues, said anti-solution campaigns are expected to continue in South Korea, but shuttle diplomacy might contribute to preventing bilateral ties from deteriorating further.

Meanwhile, Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University's Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies, said the resumption of reciprocal visits is important, especially for Yoon ahead of his trip to the United States in April for talks with President Joe Biden.

To promote Japan-U.S.-South Korea trilateral defense cooperation in the face of North Korea's missile and nuclear threat, as well as China's military buildup, Biden had hoped that the wartime labor row would be resolved soon, Kimura said.

The Korean area studies expert added a "strong U.S. push" was partly responsible for Yoon's quick decision on the solution. Biden issued a statement immediately after the announcement by Seoul, saying he had highly evaluated it.

In the planned talks with Biden, Yoon can "display his achievement" in improving relations with Tokyo and confidently say that South Korea is "now getting along with Japan," in turn benefiting the United States, Kimura said.

Still, concerns linger that South Korea may overturn the latest solution, given that in 2019 Moon's government unilaterally scrapped a 2015 agreement with Japan to settle the so-called comfort women matter "finally and irreversibly."

Kimura urged Japan to reach a diplomatic accord with South Korea on the solution to the wartime labor dispute during the five-year tenure of Yoon, saying it is still "nothing more than a de facto agreement that is light and nonbinding."

Aoyama Gakuin's Kumagai asked the Kishida administration to "keep consistently showing an attitude" that Japan will support Yoon's policy, although his decision on the solution was "audacious" but "slightly hasty."

Yoon has provided an opportunity for Japan to improve ties with South Korea, and Kishida "must not miss it," Kumagai said, reiterating the necessity of accelerating mutual visits by the leaders of the two countries.


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This all hangs on the Yoon administration's ability to quell it's political opponents who are using anti-JPN sentiment against him. And that sentiment is being perpetuated by the lawyers and activists who have made it their livlihood. Good luck to President Yoon!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Both are US puppets of sorts.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I makes sense for the two countries to work together for their common prosperity, and even for their very survival. They are surrounded by increasingly aggressive dictatorships; China, North Korea, and Russia.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Both nations are democracies and allied with the United States. That doesn't make them "puppets" any more than the EU, UK, Canada or Australia.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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