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(News Focus) S. Korea beefs up diplomacy with Japan to resume N.K. dialogue, build rapport with Biden: experts

All News 09:00 November 17, 2020

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea appears to be revving up diplomacy to mend ties with Japan frayed over wartime history and trade, as it seeks fresh opportunities to reengage with North Korea and eyes a tight-knit alliance with the incoming Joe Biden administration.

President Moon Jae-in and other Seoul officials have recently struck a conciliatory tone toward Japan, amid worries that persistent tensions with Tokyo could take a toll on Seoul's partnership with Washington, intent on harnessing its regional alliance network to tackle the North Korean nuclear quandary, China's growing assertiveness and other challenges.

Seoul's olive branches came amid growing expectation that next year's Tokyo Olympics could set the stage for the resumption of dialogue with Pyongyang, with Moon eager to advance his peace agenda, albeit in the twilight of his presidency to end in May 2022, observers said.

"As the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics paved the way for dialogue with Pyongyang, the Tokyo Olympics could lead to engagement among the two Koreas and the United States should senior North Korean officials and Biden attend the event," Nam Chang-hee, professor of diplomacy at Inha University, said.

"For that to happen, Seoul and Tokyo need to be on good terms," he added.

Moon's desire for better ties with Tokyo came into the open when he made personal remarks to greet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during Saturday's virtual summit involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- an unusual move in a multilateral forum.

"Honorable chair and leaders of the countries, especially Prime Minister Suga of Japan, it's a pleasure to meet you," Moon said during the ASEAN Plus Three summit, which also involved Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

President Moon Jae-in speaks during a virtual summit meeting involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Nov. 14, 2020. (Yonhap)

Moon's greeting came after National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won and ruling Democratic Party Rep. Kim Jin-pyo separately met with Suga in Tokyo last week, on trips that observers said appeared designed to chart solutions to a row over Japan's colonial-era forced labor and export curbs.

Japan's Asahi Shimbun daily also reported that talks were under way to arrange a visit to Japan by Moon's top security advisor, Suh Hoon, in yet another sign of Seoul's conciliatory attempt.

A major roadblock to the countries' conciliation is the wartime forced labor issue. The issue came to the fore after South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that Japanese firms should compensate aging victims of forced labor during Tokyo's 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Tokyo claims all reparation issues stemming from its colonial occupation were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties, while Seoul argues it cannot meddle in the judicial decisions.

In apparent retaliation, Japan imposed export curbs against South Korea last year.

Moon appears to be seeking to engage with Suga for a turnaround in the bilateral relations through a trilateral summit that Seoul is supposed to host for the Japanese leader and the Chinese premier before the end of this year.

But Suga has reportedly refused to attend the gathering unless Seoul pledges not to liquidate the assets of Japanese firms to compensate the victims.

"Despite such diplomatic moves, the question at this point is whether Seoul has a roadmap of its own on how to address the forced labor issue," said Chin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a think tank.

"Although there has been dialogue going on between the two sides, dialogue doesn't seem to be sufficient for efforts toward a solution," he added.

Seoul's fence-mending gestures followed U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's emphasis on shoring up multilateralism in a departure from President Donald Trump's unconventional, inward-looking foreign policy marked by his "America First" mantra.

In last week's phone talks with foreign leaders, Biden defined his foreign policy vision with the message, "America is back," underscoring his intention to bolster multilateralism and shore up America's global leadership by knitting back its alliances and partnerships in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

"The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats," Biden wrote in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a press conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 9, 2020, in this photo released by AFP. (Yonhap)

In Northeast Asia, the incoming U.S. government is expected to tighten up its trilateral security collaboration with the two core allies, Seoul and Tokyo, and thus could move to close any fissure in the alliance apparatus.

Observers noted that Seoul's friendly gestures toward Tokyo might reflect eagerness -- or a sense of urgency -- to create fresh momentum to revive its drive to denuclearize North Korea and lay the groundwork for a lasting peace on the peninsula.

Seoul's peace drive came to a standstill due to a deadlock in nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and the North that have been at loggerheads over various sticking points, such as Pyongyang's denuclearization methods.

Whatever intentions behind Seoul's conciliatory gestures, South Korea and Japan might want an off-ramp to exit their protracted diplomatic row, as they explore what serves the best interests of their nations, analysts said.

"In fact, Japan has also sustained losses from the export restrictions it initiated. Therefore, it would find it difficult to just reject them if Korea extends its hands," Nam said.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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