March 28, 2023
TOKYO – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s visit to Japan on March 16 and 17 opened the door to a new era in his country’s relationship with Japan. He met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo and took a bold step to resolve the complicated issue of wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.
The relationship had gone from bad to worse since 2011 when the Constitutional Court of Korea handed down a new ruling on the issue of so-called comfort women. The court held that the government violated the rights of the former comfort women with its inaction and essentially asked the government to renegotiate compensation with Japan.
After this ruling, there unfortunately emerged in various forums a re-politicization of historical issues that were legally settled in 1965 through the Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea.
In 2015, the Japanese government tried to end the comfort women issue by contributing ¥1 billion to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation that was established by the administration of then South Korean President Park Geun-hye based on both governments’ agreement. Both sides confirmed that the agreement resolved the issue “finally and irreversibly.” However, after the 2017 South Korean presidential election, newly elected President Moon Jae-in scrapped this effort.
During the Moon era, another historical issue was introduced. In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation to wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula. This pushed the bilateral relationship to its lowest level since the 1965 normalization of diplomatic relations.
Past South Korean presidents have either made hay of anti-Japan sentiment, or have had to accommodate it to avoid criticism. It was inevitable for them to take a hard line when dealing with issues concerning Japan.
The Japanese people had been disappointed by South Korea’s actions to a point where some wondered if it were trying to bring on a new era of Japan-bashing instead of mutually seeking solutions.
But Yoon is taking a totally different approach. In an exclusive interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Seoul on March 14, he stressed that “it is a responsibility of a political leader to resolve the issue” of former requisitioned workers. He decided on a new solution in which a foundation under the umbrella of the South Korean government will pay the plaintiffs compensation equivalent to the amount the defendant Japanese companies have been ordered to pay. Yoon said he had considered this measure, called “third-party compensation,” before he took office. This solution means that only the South Korean side will pay, and it won’t ask Japan to pay. Japan will only be called on to demonstrate “sincere responses” following the solution.
He also explained his strong aspiration to restore the relationship, saying that “normalizing bilateral relations will not only serve the interests of both countries but also will send a very positive sign to the international community.” In fact, he was brave enough to pledge himself to restoring the Japan-South Korea relationship in the presidential election last year despite being strongly criticized because of this stance.
I was present when he answered questions asked by Shoichi Oikawa, representative director and chairman of the board, senior deputy editor-in-chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, at the presidential office. Yoon struck me as a statesman who would persist in his belief, rather than a politician who lightly relies on populism or a pragmatist who employs necessary policies with gritted teeth.
I was surprised when he gave a long speech on liberty in the final stretch of the interview. He explained his thoughts on liberty for over 10 minutes. He said: “Liberty is a synonym for solidarity. We can stick up for liberty through solidarity.” He then concluded: “I think the moving force behind human development since modern times began has been liberty. South Korea, Japan and the Group of Seven countries respect universal values such as liberty, human rights, solidarity and the rule of law as part of the fundamental order. Countries that share such universal values can strongly solidarize.”
Before running in the presidential election, Yoon had been a prosecutor. As a former legal professional, he surely believes Japan is a natural partner for South Korea. If so, I think South Korea and Japan can team up and deal with complicated issues through the reciprocal visits that both leaders agreed on at the last summit. I expect Japan to demonstrate sincere responses to some outstanding problems, as long as the proposed solutions don’t contradict the 1965 agreement.
Improving his country’s bilateral relationship with Japan must also be appreciated by the United States. Based on Yoon’s solid belief in universal values, South Korea can be expected not only to strengthen its alliance with the United States but also to de-emphasize its relationship with China.
This supposition could be borne out by Yoon’s planned state visit to the United States in April and his participation in the G7 Hiroshima summit in May.