|Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol, second from right, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second from left, attend a NATO summit at the IFEMA Convention Center in Madrid, Spain, June 29. Yonhap|
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Japanese media has been focusing on Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's "sales diplomacy," which centers on promoting the exports of Korean products, during his first overseas trip.
Yoon visited Madrid, Spain to attend a NATO summit and met with a handful of heads of state from June 27 to July 1.
According to Yonhap News Agency, Japanese news outlet Asahi Shimbun reported Saturday that Yoon showed the face of a "merchant," making efforts to expand the market for Korean weapons and nuclear power plants.
Yoon mainly promoted Korea's nuclear energy and defense industries during his summits with Australia, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and Poland.
Korea is one of the world's top 10 arms exporting countries (since 2010), with defense exports topping $10 billion in 2021.
Korea was the world's ninth-largest weapons exporter from 2016 to 2020, climbing up the ranks from the year before, according to the Global Defense Market Yearbook 2021 by the Korea Research Institute for Defense Technology Planning and Advancement.
The Japanese media analyzed how Korea aims to reform its economic structure, which is heavily dependent on trade with China ― taking up about 25 percent of exports and 22 percent of imports. Korea is looking to diversify its market because of the U.S.-China rivalry.
Another Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun also reported Korea shifting from dependency on China to exploration of new markets in Europe amid increasing demand for arms due to Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
Japan's interest in Yoon's sales diplomacy is a way to thaw Korea-Japan relations as it looks toward the Yoon administration to improve bilateral relations.
During his trip, Yoon did not hold formal talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, but they met briefly a few times during official NATO events as well as at the Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral summit.
The Korean presidential office said that Prime Minister Kishida told Yoon to "(let's) make efforts to make healthier Korea-Japan relations," but Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said Kishida told Yoon to do his best to improve Korea-Japan relations, pressing Korea to make the first move.
Kim Hyun-wook of the Korea National Diplomacy Academy said this is the time for Korea to restructure its regional policies so as to seek its national interest due to the ongoing U.S.-China trade rivalry and Yoon's attempt in promoting exports to Europe, is one of them.
"China expressed discontent over Korea and Japan attending the NATO summit, which is moving to contain China in the Indo Pacific region, as the two countries are neighbors of China," Kim said.
"Korea-Japan relations are closely related to this geopolitics. Korea and Japan have been chilly due to historical issues for years, but the Yoon administration is willing to improve relations with Japan and if Yoon can bring a solution to the historical issues, it will be a breakthrough."