As Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan arrived in Seoul on Sunday to nurture a fledgling détente between the neighboring international locations, South Koreans had been ready intently for what he needed to say about Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula within the early twentieth century.
Mr. Kishida’s two-day journey follows a visit in March by South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, to Tokyo. It implies that shuttle diplomacy between two key U.S. allies is again on observe after common exchanges between the international locations’ leaders ended abruptly in 2011 over historic variations.
Few international locations welcome the thaw as a lot as the USA. For years, it has been urging Tokyo and Seoul to let go of previous grievances and cooperate extra, each to discourage the nuclear menace from North Korea and to assist Washington rein in China’s financial and navy ambitions.
When he met Mr. Yoon in Washington late final month, President Biden thanked the South Korean chief for his “brave, principled diplomacy with Japan.”
In March, Mr. Yoon eliminated a roadblock in relations with Japan when he introduced that South Korea would not demand Japanese compensation for victims of compelled labor throughout World Struggle II, however would create its personal fund for them. Mr. Yoon said that Japan ought to not be anticipated to “kneel due to our historical past 100 years in the past.”
The olive department to Tokyo is a part of Mr. Yoon’s broader efforts to reshape South Korean diplomacy, aligning his nation nearer to international locations with “shared values,” particularly the USA, on things like provide chains and a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Yoon’s diplomatic concessions had been a political boon for Mr. Kishida at dwelling however costly for Mr. Yoon in his personal nation, the place South Koreans accused him of “traitorous, humiliating diplomacy.” His home critics say he gave an excessive amount of and acquired too little in return from Japan, which they are saying has by no means correctly apologized or atoned — a typical grievance amongst many different Asian victims, particularly in China and North Korea, of Japan’s World Struggle II aggressions.
To many South Koreans, what issues most in relations with Tokyo is how Japanese leaders view its colonial period, a time when Koreans had been compelled to undertake Japanese names; when faculties eliminated Korean language and historical past from the curriculum; and when tens of 1000’s of Korean girls had been compelled into sexual slavery for Japan’s Imperial Military. They’re more likely to assess Mr. Kishida’s go to on whether or not — and the way straight — he’ll apologize for that previous.
“South Koreans are all ears for what Kishida will say in regards to the historical past,” stated Lee Junghwan, an skilled in Korea-Japan relations at Seoul Nationwide College. “If he says one thing obscure, simply making roundabout references to statements from the previous Japanese leaders, as he doubtless will, it might not go down very effectively.”
Mr. Yoon’s authorities has tried to promote South Koreans on his outreach by elevating hopes that Japan would reciprocate — as an illustration, by letting Japanese corporations that benefited from wartime compelled labor make voluntary contributions to the South Korean victims fund. In current weeks Tokyo has lifted export controls imposed on South Korea after the dispute over forced labor erupted in 2018 and began the method of placing the nation again on its “white list” of preferential commerce companions.
But when Mr. Kishida fails to ship on South Koreans’ expectations on historical past, “it’s going to solid a shadow over all that they’ve managed to perform in the previous few months,” stated Daniel Sneider, a lecturer of East Asian research at Stanford College. “It’s extra necessary what he says in regards to the previous than whether or not or not, for instance, Japanese corporations finally contribute to the fund for the Korean compelled laborers.”
The Seoul journey is a take a look at of management for Mr. Kishida, and a chance to point out that he can increase on Mr. Yoon’s efforts towards reconciliation, analysts stated.
“An uncommon window exists for him to show daring statesmanship and to shift the seemingly limitless vortex of negativity between Japan and Korea,” stated Prof. Alexis Dudden on the College of Connecticut, an skilled on Korea-Japan relations.
As an example, Mr. Kishida might pay a reflective go to to any of Seoul’s monuments to the struggling that Koreans endured beneath Japanese occupation, Professor Dudden stated, evaluating such a transfer to a 1970 visit to Poland by the German chancellor, Willy Brandt. However doing so — not to mention kneeling earlier than a monument, as Chancellor Brandt famously did in Warsaw — could also be an excessive amount of to ask from Mr. Kishida, on condition that his nation’s right-wing nationalists are poised to “make him pay for something they outline as being weak on Korea within the mudslinging reminiscence wars between the international locations,” she stated.
The final time a Japanese chief visited South Korea, the connection was so unhealthy that the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, remained pointedly seated throughout a standing ovation as North and South Korean Olympians marched collectively in the course of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Mr. Kishida, touring amid a extra amicable temper, has stated he needed to “add momentum” to the enhancing relations. However few analysts believed that decades-long tensions will disappear simply, given political strain at dwelling for each leaders.
“Greater than 90 % of our bilateral relationship is home politics,” stated Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat. “So South Koreans can’t pardon us. They are going to proceed to strain us, they usually need to preserve these form of relations perpetually by transferring the purpose posts.”
For his half, Mr. Kishida wanted the assist of right-leaning politicians in Japan, who’re among the many most influential in choosing social gathering leaders. Mr. Miyake stated he can be “shocked” if Mr. Kishida “immediately makes overly conciliatory remarks vis-à-vis South Korea.”
But Tokyo could also be contemplating the best way to navigate delicate strain from the USA, analysts stated.
Mr. Biden’s repeated reward of Mr. Yoon’s diplomacy was “a type of message not solely to President Yoon however to Kishida,” stated Junya Nishino, a legislation professor at Keio College in Tokyo. Mr. Nishino added that current electoral victories by Mr. Kishida’s social gathering in particular elections final month may also give him “extra diplomatic area.”
Mr. Yoon’s personal willpower to enhance ties with Tokyo is backed partially by shifting public opinion in South Korea. In current surveys, China has replaced Japan because the nation regarded least favorably, particularly by youthful folks.
However misgivings about Japan have deeper roots amongst South Koreans than Mr. Yoon could wish to consider, analysts say. A survey taken in March discovered that 64 % of South Korean respondents stated there was no must hurry to enhance ties until Japan modified its angle on historical past.
Ms. Dudden cautioned Seoul, Tokyo and Washington in opposition to treating “historical past as mere background music to the current and irrelevant to the way it informs speedy issues — on this occasion, standing agency on North Korea and more and more on China, too.”
Because the historical past of the bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan has repeatedly proven, a reconciliatory transfer over one historic dispute accomplishes little if one other dispute, comparable to over the territorial rights over a set of islets between the 2 nations, is rekindled.
“The historical past points have a approach of coming again and biting you within the rear finish,” Mr. Sneider stated. “These aren’t simply problems with short-term public opinion. They’re issues of id in Korea.”