Shift in stance
Upgraded US-Japan alliance raises need for practicality in Seoul's diplomacy
Seoul's Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said last week that South Korea and Japan could seek help from the US, their shared ally, if it was needed to settle their protracted discord over historical issues.
His remarks, made in a parliamentary session, seemed to reflect Seoul's frustration at Tokyo's adamant stance amid Washington's increasing calls for improved ties between them, which are essential to the progress of trilateral cooperation.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in indicated last month that his government would handle pending issues with Japan in a more flexible manner, so as to forge a forward-looking partnership. His national security team subsequently pledged to step up efforts to enhance Seoul-Tokyo relations.
But Tokyo remains callous to recent reconciliatory gestures from Seoul.
Chung, who took office early this month, has yet to hold his first phone talks with his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, despite his willingness to do so as soon as possible.
New South Korean Ambassador to Tokyo Kang Chang-il is still waiting for his courtesy calls with Motegi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to be arranged, though he assumed the post a month ago.
Ties between the two nations have plummeted to one of their lowest ebbs over issues stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula, which have spilled over into the economic and military realms in recent years.
The Moon administration was criticized for being negligent in finding diplomatic solutions to historical disputes with Tokyo, allowing them to be complicated by court rulings here.
In January, a local court ordered the Japanese government to compensate South Korean women coerced into sexual servitude for imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II. A separate legal process has been underway to seize and liquidate South Korea-based assets of Japanese firms to make reparations to those forced to work for them during colonial rule.
Tokyo has argued that all reparations issues stemming from its colonization of the peninsula were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized ties between the two countries.
Until late last year, the Moon administration maintained that it could do little in connection with judicial judgments on the cases of sexual enslavement and forced labor. Shortly after assuming office in May 2017, it backpedaled on the implementation of a 2015 deal that the government of Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, concluded with Tokyo to settle the sexual slavery issue on the grounds that it failed to properly reflect the victims' views.
In what was seen as an abrupt departure from the inflexible position, Moon said last month that his government would seek dialogue with Tokyo to find a solution to the sexual slavery issue based on the 2015 accord. He also called for a diplomatic settlement of the forced labor issue, saying it would be undesirable to dispose of assets held by Japanese firms here.
The shift in his stance seemed to stem from concerns that tensions between South Korea and Japan could hamper Seoul's efforts to facilitate cooperation with US President Joe Biden's administration in pushing for Seoul's peace agenda for the peninsula.
A US State Department official said Friday that any approach to North Korea that put its denuclearization at the center would not be effective if Washington was not working in tandem with Seoul and Tokyo. He added that three-way cooperation among them was also important to promoting their shared values in the Indo-Pacific region.
The strengthening of the Washington-Tokyo alliance raises the prospect of the US being swayed by Japan in drawing up its policy approach to Pyongyang.
Tokyo is playing a key role in the mechanism of the "Quad," to which the Biden administration is attaching significant importance in its strategy to keep a rising China in check. Australia and India are the other two members of the group, launched in 2007 at the initiative of Japan's then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Foreign ministers from the four nations held a virtual meeting last week to discuss a broad range of issues, including COVID-19 response, climate change, counterterrorism, maritime security and the need to restore democracy in Myanmar. Notably, the Japanese Foreign Ministry disclosed that the situation in North Korea was also discussed at the quadrilateral meeting, the first of its kind since the Biden administration took office Jan. 20.
Seoul has been reluctant to participate in US efforts to expand the Quad, apparently out of concern that doing so would irk China.
The Moon administration now finds its room for diplomatic maneuvering being narrowed as a result of its preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation, its ambiguous position between Washington and Beijing and its frayed ties with Tokyo. Taking substantive steps toward a future-oriented partnership with Japan could be the start of the Moon administration's more practical diplomacy that best serves national interests.
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