Improving ties mutually beneficial for Tokyo, Seoul

by Janice Tang

Kyodo News

Japan’s relations with South Korea, which were in terrible shape just a few years ago, are steadfastly becoming more “future-oriented” and “mature,” as the two neighbors have begun to recognize common interests in boosting their global presence and securing their alliances with the new U.S. administration.

“There is no bilateral relationship in which no problems exist. Our predecessors in Japan and South Korea have applied their wisdom to overcome the issues and we, too, must further such efforts in a calm manner and put things in perspective,” Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said in wrapping up his visit Wednesday in Seoul.

At foreign ministerial talks, Nakasone and his counterpart, Yu Myung Hwan, reached various agreements on key tools to foster the “mature partnership” that the nations’ top leaders are aiming for, including cooperation in providing development assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, the first such joint project between the two neighbors.

“Of course there are still difficult issues between South Korea and Japan . . . but I think the two countries now recognize each other as a very important partner in the international arena,” a Foreign Ministry official involved in Korean affairs said.

Asked by reporters about the significance of joint Japan-South Korea efforts on global issues, Yu said, “As friendly nations that share common values and neighbors with deep understanding for each other culturally, we can create synergy by cooperating and capitalizing on our respective strong points.”

Both Tokyo and Seoul want to expand assistance in Afghanistan, which new U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated he will put priority on. While Japan currently has a greater civilian presence and expertise in Afghan reconstruction, South Korea has an advantage in its ability to send security forces.

The change of administration in the United States and the visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Asia next week have also prompted Japan and South Korea to compare notes and review the appropriate way forward in dealing with the nuclear and other issues related to North Korea.

“At the moment, the Japanese government and the South Korean government are in the same boat and they’re trying to persuade the new U.S. government not to move too fast” on its relations with North Korea, Seoul National University professor Lee Geun said.

Both Tokyo, which wants emphasis put on the abduction issue, and Seoul, which is facing domestic pressures, are wary that the Obama administration’s policy of engagement may lead the U.S. to move too quickly with the North on the nuclear issue.

Saying there is a need for a “comprehensive solution” in the nuclear, missile and abduction issues, Nakasone at Wednesday’s talks hoped to get South Korea and other key players to take a step back and adopt a broader perspective, rather than just dwell on verification of the North’s nuclear programs, a senior ministry official said.

“As the new administration in Washington will take some time to review U.S. policies on North Korea to date, this is a good opportunity to do so,” the official said, asking not to be named.

Tokyo and Seoul are also moving closer in their positions on the abduction issue as South Korea’s conservative government emphasizes human rights issues, especially in North Korea.