Yoon begins pursuit of improved relations with Japan amid pending issues

Reuters file photo
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, second from right, in Seoul on May 10.

SEOUL — A new era of diplomacy between South Korea and Japan advocated by newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol will get into full swing with a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers scheduled for June.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin will make his first visit to Japan to meet with Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi, South Korean government sources said.

The two top diplomats will aim to set up a summit meeting between Yoon and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and to quickly resolve such issues as lingering historical disputes.

Yoon has expressed a desire to improve relations with Japan that deteriorated under his predecessor Moon Jae-in.

According to one South Korean government source, during his visit to Japan, Park is expected to directly tell Hayashi of his aspiration to have remaining issues between the two countries resolved as soon as possible.

In addition, with both Kishida and Yoon expected to attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit scheduled for late June in Madrid, an agenda will be worked out with the Japanese side for a face-to-face meeting between the two Asian leaders.

However, even if such a meeting takes place, Japan and South Korea are expected to only agree on the normalization of relations in broad terms. This is because there are many matters still to be resolved, such as the war-related issues of lawsuits involving requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula and the problem of so-called comfort women, as well as Seoul’s strong opposition to Japan’s toughening of export controls on semiconductor materials to South Korea.

The South Korean side has drawn up a two-stage scenario in which Yoon will visit Japan, for another round of talks in order to collectively resolve the issues by the end of the year.

Under U.S. pressure

Behind the move to quickly improve relations between Japan and South Korea is U.S. President Joe Biden’s desire to swiftly strengthen the bonds between the three countries, given North Korea’s progress in nuclear and missile development.

“A number of senior officials in the Biden administration have repeatedly called for improvement in the South Korea-Japan relationship,” another South Korean government source disclosed.

The Biden administration is pursuing the establishment of a new economic order to counter China with measures such as last Monday’s launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that includes Japan and South Korea.

Washington is also working to strengthen the supply chain for semiconductors, and wants the dispute revolving around Japan’s export controls on semiconductor materials to South Korea to be resolved as quickly as possible.

Political cost for both

At this point, the key will be whether the Yoon administration can present a solution acceptable to Japan on the biggest pending issue — the lawsuit related to requisitioned workers — that can also win over the support groups of the plaintiffs and domestic public opinion.

South Korean courts have ordered that assets of Nippon Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. be liquidated. Park’s visit to Japan in June will also focus on how to stop enforcement of the orders against the two defendants.

Some observers believe that the Yoon administration will consider proposing subrogation, in which the South Korean government would shoulder the compensation to the plaintiffs.

However, such a plan can expect fierce backlash from the plaintiffs’ support groups and leftist opposition parties that will insist the compensation come from the Japanese companies. The Yoon administration may insist on an apology from the Japanese side as a way to appease the South Korean public.

Resolving the pending issues will take a heavy political toll on both administrations.

Any concrete measures to improve relations will likely not be finalized until after local elections in South Korea and the House of Councillors’ election in Japan.

The Yoon administration will look to create a favorable atmosphere by resuming human exchanges with Japan, which had been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.