ROK President Shows Welcome Shift from Rigid Views of Japan

It is a welcome development that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, considering the difficult international environment surrounding his country, has called for progress in relations with Japan by shifting away from the policy of some of his predecessors’ administrations that were fixated on history issues. Tokyo should take this change as a positive sign.

Yoon delivered an address during a ceremony to commemorate the March First Independence Movement against Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

When delivering speeches to mark this date in the past, Yoon’s predecessors — whether conservative or leftist — often positioned Japan and South Korea in a relationship of perpetrator and victim to urge Tokyo’s remorse and atonement, thus inflaming anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea.

In contrast, while Yoon said that history must not be forgotten, he stressed that Japan has become “a partner that shares the same universal values with us. Today [South] Korea and Japan cooperate on issues of security and economy. We also work together to cope with global challenges.”

It can be said that the president expressed his willingness to recognize Japan’s international postwar reputation of having followed a path of peace.

Regarding Japanese colonial rule, Yoon noted that Korea itself had some flaws that made it difficult to respond to changes in the international situation at that time. The president then cautioned the South Korean people that “the misfortunes of the past” could be repeated if the country fails to read the changing trends of world history. He also stressed the importance of security cooperation with Japan and the United States.

The security situation in East Asia has been rapidly deteriorating, with North Korea accelerating its nuclear development and China intensifying its threats against Taiwan, among other developments. Now that Tokyo and Seoul share these views, the two countries will have more room for bilateral cooperation.

The issue of lawsuits regarding former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula has been the biggest hurdle for bilateral cooperation. However, Yoon did not make any reference to that in his latest speech, probably because Seoul’s efforts to solve the issue have entered their final stage.

Regarding the South Korean Supreme Court decisions that ordered Japanese firms to pay damages to former wartime requisitioned workers and other parties concerned, the Yoon administration has presented a proposal to plaintiffs in which a foundation under the aegis of the South Korean government will pay compensation in place of the companies. The question is whether the administration will be able to unite domestic public opinion in the face of some strong opposition.

The Japanese government, meanwhile, has maintained the stance that the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers has already been settled, citing the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which declared that the issue of claims had been “settled completely and finally.”

If assets that the Japanese companies have in South Korea are converted into cash as compensation based on the Supreme Court ruling, bilateral relations would suffer a fatal blow. Such a development would also make it difficult for Yoon to promote the foreign policy discussed in his latest address, such as improving relations with Japan. This situation must be avoided.

In response to Yoon’s speech, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno called South Korea “an important neighboring country that Japan should work with to address various challenges in the international community.” It is hoped that Tokyo will encourage the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers to be solved as soon as possible in accordance with Seoul’s proposal.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 3, 2023)