|President Yoon Suk-yeol gestures as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida stands behind him during their attendance at the summit for NATO member countries and partner nations at IFEMA Convention Center in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday (local time). Yonhap|
President Yoon shows strong interest in mending Korea-Japan relations; now ball is in Japanese PM's court
By Nam Hyun-woo
MADRID ― President Yoon Suk-yeol actively expressed his willingness to sit down with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a summit in an apparent move to thaw chilly bilateral relations, whenever he had chances to speak to the Japanese leader at the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain.
Throughout the summit, Yoon encountered Kishida a total of five times: first at a gala dinner on Tuesday; then during four-way talks among NATO's partners in the Asia-Pacific, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand (informally known as the Asia-Pacific Four or AP4); then in a trilateral summit among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo; next at a photo session among the AP4 leaders and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; and finally in a summit between NATO members and the Asia-Pacific partner countries.
Yoon actively expressed his hopes for improving Seoul-Tokyo ties in a straightforward manner.
During their meeting at the gala dinner, Yoon told Kishida he wants to "resolve issues that stand in the way of improving Seoul-Tokyo ties as soon as possible after Japan's upper house election, in order to establish future-oriented bilateral relations." Kishida responded favorably that he also hopes for "a healthier relationship."
Their exchange of diplomatic words came after the botched Yoon-Kishida summit on the sidelines of the NATO event.
Earlier this month, Seoul's presidential office had said that chances were unlikely for a Seoul-Tokyo summit in Spain, because Japan will hold an upper house of parliament election on July 10. Since a summit between South Korea and Japan is bound to entail discussion of historical issues, which is a sensitive subject for both sides, the summit having results that are favorable to Seoul could negatively affect the sentiment of Japanese voters ― especially conservatives ― watchers said.
So, according to the presidential office, conditions for a possible Seoul-Tokyo summit would be better after the elections in Japan.
|President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida applaud during the summit between the NATO member countries and partner nations at the IFEMA Convention Center in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday (local time). Yonhap|
After discussing regional issues with Kishida at the four-way talks among the Asia-Pacific partner countries a day later, Yoon told reporters that he was "convinced that Prime Minister Kishida is a partner with whom he can resolve thorny issues together to improve bilateral ties." His favorable comment about the Japanese prime minister shows Yoon's intention to be more active in improving the bilateral ties.
Despite Yoon's willingness, watchers said mending Seoul-Tokyo ties will be a waiting game. Except for the indirect encounters, the two leaders didn't sit down in bilateral talks or even a brief pull-aside meeting.
The four-way talks among NATO's four Asia-Pacific partner countries were also set up at the last minute, because the participating countries had difficulties narrowing their differences over the meeting, officials said.
"Though it is difficult to specify, Japan appears to have sought to hold the four-way talks in an official format, as the country might want to show off such a scene to its people before its elections," a senior official at the presidential office said. "For South Korea, however, it was more reasonable to have the meeting as an occasion to freely share leaders' opinions and materialize common goals if any."
The Seoul-Washington-Japan summit, which took place for the first time in four years and nine months, is described as a signal that South Korea and Japan may expedite their efforts to improve their ties, but Kishida's remarks on Japan's hopes to enhance its military power during the summit nevertheless cast doubt on such prospects.
Japan's intention to enhance its military capability may lead to a negative response from South Koreans given the history between the two countries. Seoul's foreign ministry said last month that "Japan's self-defense and security policy should be aligned with the spirit of its Peace Constitution," which outlaws the country maintaining armed forces with war potential and instead highlights self-defense.
As Yoon appears to be offering an olive branch to Japan, it remains to be seen how the situation will unfold after Japan's election.
"During the summit, the two leaders both showed signs that they are ready to repair bilateral relations," another official at the presidential office said. "The remaining tasks are how their aides and ministries will open their minds and develop candid discussions."