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Korea-Japan ties don’t see signs of thawing

Apr 15,2019
It’s highly doubtful that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold a summit with Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, this June, according to Japanese media on Sunday.

Citing a number of sources in the Japanese government, Kyodo News reported that Abe believes that “productive discussions cannot be expected since President Moon lacks the will to improve Korea-Japan ties.”

The same sources said Abe would be meeting with leaders of the United States, China and Russia at the G-20, meaning Korea will be singled out for what appears to be a deliberate snub.

The possibility of a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in June had been considered by analysts an important opportunity to improve ties between the neighboring countries amid a protracted standoff over a number of historical and diplomatic rows.

But ties between Seoul and Tokyo are in a deep freeze, which some experts say could be at their lowest point since ties were restored in 1965.

Abe’s reluctance to meet Moon won’t be helped by a ruling last week by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that allowed Korea to continue its ban on seafood from Japan, a sanitation measure in case of possible radioactive contamination.

Japan had first brought the case in to the WTO in 2015 to argue that Seoul’s measures stood in violation of trading rules, but the organization’s decision to rule in Korea’s favor in an appellate case last Thursday is reported to have invited criticism to the Abe administration domestically.

According to Kyodo News, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Tokyo was unwilling to hold a bilateral summit since it has little expectation of progress in bringing up the WTO ruling with Moon. It added that the two leaders could meet after all in June if Seoul veered away from its hard-line stance towards Japan or if there were major developments regarding North Korea in the next two months.

But the possibility of such a rapprochement in the short run looks slim in light of assessments of bilateral ties made by analysts. Last month, the JoongAng Ilbo asked a panel of experts in both Korea and Japan to diagnose the current situation and evaluate the underlying actions of both governments that have prolonged their disputes.

The most fundamental issue, the experts said, was a clear difference in outlook between Korea’s progressive and Japan’s conservative administrations.

According to Kimiya Tadashi, a professor of political science at Tokyo University, Korea remains too eager to interpret Japanese diplomacy as a facet of the Abe administration’s right wing policies, while Japan remains fixated with seeing the rift in terms of the Moon government’s pro-North, anti-Japan stance.

A similar diagnosis was laid out by Hideki Okuzono, an international relations professor at the University of Shizuoka, who said Seoul maintains an overly “narrow” view of Korea-Japan ties, seeking to interpret it only through the prism of inter-Korean relations, while Tokyo’s diplomacy towards Korea lacks an overall strategy and is tainted by emotion.

Korean experts also expressed similar views, saying that the domestic agendas of both governments were straining bilateral relations toward a tipping point.

In Seoul, the Moon administration faces mounting pressure on its diplomatic policy towards Japan as a result of what one government source called a “lack of vision” on how to set its ties with Tokyo in the face of a growing rift between the United States and China in Northeast Asia.

Japan has been particularly vocal with respect to a ruling by the Korean Supreme Court last October that ordered Japanese companies to compensate for Korean victims of wartime forced labor, but for months Seoul has delayed any response to the case, maintaining that it will not intervene in the victims’ lawsuits, which were financed with their own money.

Last week, Abe met with outgoing Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon and asked Seoul take concrete action “as soon as possible” on the issue, renewing Tokyo’s numerous complaints to Korea that, at one point, even involved threats of economic sanctions.

Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and a task force team representing several ministries are working to present a position on the ruling. Sources in the Korean government said studies have been conducted to present various measures, including a plan to establish a foundation that will involve the Korean government, Korean companies and Japanese firms, though the Blue House in January dismissed this idea as an “insensible notion.”

While President Moon told Japanese businessmen last month that “economic issues should be separate from politics,” the administration appears overall unequipped if Japan indeed chooses to seek economic retaliations against Seoul over their ongoing disputes.

Similarly problematic is the unresolved dispute over a South Korean warship’s alleged lock on of its fire-control radar on a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft in December, which threatens to undermine the two countries’ military cooperation towards the nuclear threat presented by Pyongyang.

While it was Abe who first escalated the incident into a diplomatic dispute by allegedly ordering the Japanese Defense Ministry to publicly place the blame on Korea, Seoul’s pushback on the issue and its subsequent policy of non-engagement towards Tokyo has fueled the view in Japan that the Moon government is unwilling to improve ties at all. According to one source, one Korean official’s attempt to voice concern over the recent breakdown of ties with Japan was met with accusations of disloyalty within the government, where hard-line stances are prevailing.

“Diplomacy is being neglected, as Korea insists on ‘passing’ Japan while Japan is ‘passing’ Korea,” said Shin Gak-soo, a former Korean ambassador to Tokyo, using a recently popularized term that denotes each party’s attempts to bypass the other diplomatically.

Though historical disputes between the two countries - stemming from Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945 - have long been sources of mutual distrust, shared economic and geopolitical interests have fostered decades of partnership that now seem endangered.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, SEO SEUNG-WOOK and CHUN SU-JIN [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]