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How can Moon mend frayed ties with Japan under Suga?

Newly elected head of Liberal Democratic Party Yoshihide Suga poses for photos following his press conference at its headquarters after the party's leadership election in Tokyo Monday, Sept. 14. AP-Yonhap
Newly elected head of Liberal Democratic Party Yoshihide Suga poses for photos following his press conference at its headquarters after the party's leadership election in Tokyo Monday, Sept. 14. AP-Yonhap

By Do Je-hae

Questions are being asked as to whether the leadership change in Japan this week will provide a significant impetus for improving bilateral relations between Korea and Japan, following Yoshihide Suga's election as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader, Monday.

But prospects appear dim for any visible change in the strained Seoul-Tokyo ties, which under outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plummeted to their worst levels since the 1965 normalization of diplomatic relations.

The prime minister-designate has announced that he will inherit Abe's foreign policies. Regarding relations with South Korea, he has repeated Abe's position that the 1965 treaty, under which Japan claims a complete and final settlement of colonial era-related reparations, must be the basis of bilateral relations.

With negative prospects for South Korea-Japan ties even under a new leadership in Tokyo, experts are underlining the need for Seoul to take the initiative in restoring bilateral trust. For this, they say one of the first things it must do is to clear the uncertainty over a bilateral military information sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed in 2016.

"Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Hyun-chong attempted to cancel a bilateral intelligence sharing pact with Japan," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University, told The Korea Times. "That needlessly damaged Seoul's credibility, not only in Tokyo, but also in Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing. Rather than hold GSOMIA at risk, the Moon Jae-in administration should expand security cooperation with an essential neighbor and fellow U.S. ally. Rather than escalate legal battles or demonize Tokyo, Seoul should encourage civil society dialogues. Fueling trade disputes with wartime history is counterproductive to reconciliation, not to mention harmful to economies recovering from the global pandemic."

Seoul withdrew from its earlier stance to discontinue the GSOMIA in November 2019, following strong opposition from Washington, which said it was "disappointed" by the announcement. Washington sees the GSOMIA as a critical component of trilateral security cooperation, particularly in the wake of continued threats from North Korea and China's rise in the region.

President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Monday, Sept. 14. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Monday, Sept. 14. Yonhap

There has been no response from Japan to Moon's proposal for resuming talks during his speech to mark Liberation Day, Aug. 15. This is mainly because the two countries are still poles apart on the issue of compensation for Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan's 1910-45 occupation of Korea. Seoul says the October 2018 Supreme Court ruling that ordered Japanese firms to compensate the Korean plaintiffs must be implemented, but Tokyo has refused to adhere to the ruling and insists that the 1965 treaty resolved all compensation issues.

"Suga is likely to respond favorably to South Korean efforts at repairing economic and security ties, if Seoul moves first on closing the gap between domestic court rulings and existing international agreements," Easley added.

Despite the ongoing row over historical issues, some insiders suggest the need for Korean policymakers to adopt a more forward-looking approach to Japan with the view that it is in Korea's interests to be good friends with Japan amid the complex geopolitical situation involving the U.S, China and North Korea.

"It is South Korea that will suffer most by disregarding Japan, which is a very important partner," a diplomatic source told The Korea Times. "The deterioration of Korea-Japan relations affects our relations with the U.S. as well as China in a very negative way. The worsening of bilateral relations damages both countries, but we are the one more negatively affected. We need a stern response to what Japan is doing wrong. But to tackle our geopolitical reality, we need a cool-headed approach to advance our national interest."


Newly elected head of Liberal Democratic Party Yoshihide Suga poses for photos following his press conference at its headquarters after the party's leadership election in Tokyo Monday, Sept. 14. AP-Yonhap
Newly elected head of Liberal Democratic Party Yoshihide Suga poses for photos following his press conference at its headquarters after the party's leadership election in Tokyo Monday, Sept. 14. AP-Yonhap

By Do Je-hae

Questions are being asked as to whether the leadership change in Japan this week will provide a significant impetus for improving bilateral relations between Korea and Japan, following Yoshihide Suga's election as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader, Monday.

But prospects appear dim for any visible change in the strained Seoul-Tokyo ties, which under outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plummeted to their worst levels since the 1965 normalization of diplomatic relations.

The prime minister-designate has announced that he will inherit Abe's foreign policies. Regarding relations with South Korea, he has repeated Abe's position that the 1965 treaty, under which Japan claims a complete and final settlement of colonial era-related reparations, must be the basis of bilateral relations.

With negative prospects for South Korea-Japan ties even under a new leadership in Tokyo, experts are underlining the need for Seoul to take the initiative in restoring bilateral trust. For this, they say one of the first things it must do is to clear the uncertainty over a bilateral military information sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed in 2016.

"Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Hyun-chong attempted to cancel a bilateral intelligence sharing pact with Japan," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University, told The Korea Times. "That needlessly damaged Seoul's credibility, not only in Tokyo, but also in Washington, Pyongyang and Beijing. Rather than hold GSOMIA at risk, the Moon Jae-in administration should expand security cooperation with an essential neighbor and fellow U.S. ally. Rather than escalate legal battles or demonize Tokyo, Seoul should encourage civil society dialogues. Fueling trade disputes with wartime history is counterproductive to reconciliation, not to mention harmful to economies recovering from the global pandemic."

Seoul withdrew from its earlier stance to discontinue the GSOMIA in November 2019, following strong opposition from Washington, which said it was "disappointed" by the announcement. Washington sees the GSOMIA as a critical component of trilateral security cooperation, particularly in the wake of continued threats from North Korea and China's rise in the region.

President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Monday, Sept. 14. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Monday, Sept. 14. Yonhap

There has been no response from Japan to Moon's proposal for resuming talks during his speech to mark Liberation Day, Aug. 15. This is mainly because the two countries are still poles apart on the issue of compensation for Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan's 1910-45 occupation of Korea. Seoul says the October 2018 Supreme Court ruling that ordered Japanese firms to compensate the Korean plaintiffs must be implemented, but Tokyo has refused to adhere to the ruling and insists that the 1965 treaty resolved all compensation issues.

"Suga is likely to respond favorably to South Korean efforts at repairing economic and security ties, if Seoul moves first on closing the gap between domestic court rulings and existing international agreements," Easley added.

Despite the ongoing row over historical issues, some insiders suggest the need for Korean policymakers to adopt a more forward-looking approach to Japan with the view that it is in Korea's interests to be good friends with Japan amid the complex geopolitical situation involving the U.S, China and North Korea.

"It is South Korea that will suffer most by disregarding Japan, which is a very important partner," a diplomatic source told The Korea Times. "The deterioration of Korea-Japan relations affects our relations with the U.S. as well as China in a very negative way. The worsening of bilateral relations damages both countries, but we are the one more negatively affected. We need a stern response to what Japan is doing wrong. But to tackle our geopolitical reality, we need a cool-headed approach to advance our national interest."


Do Je-hae jhdo@koreatimes.co.kr


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