Seoul ties thawing but can always get cold

North policy differences, historical issues, territorial row all lie in store



Despite an agreement here Monday between Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and new South Korean President Lee Myung Bak to build a “new era” — indicating bilateral ties could get steadily back on track and even be raised to a higher level — the two leaders did not engage in candid discussions over their differences in key policy issues.

Apparently focusing on producing an amicable atmosphere during their meeting, which marked the start of Lee’s diplomacy following his inauguration the same day, Fukuda and Lee left unclear how far they can coordinate policies in dealing with Pyongyang and work together in overcoming historical and territorial rows.

Hopes have been high in Tokyo that Lee, who advocates pragmatic diplomacy and a tougher stance on North Korea than his predecessors, may bring Tokyo and Seoul closer, which have differed in their approach to dealing with Pyongyang.

“The summit was held in a friendly atmosphere that did not make us feel that they were meeting for the first time. I felt that Japan-South Korea ties have entered a new stage,” a Japanese government official said after the summit held at the Blue House presidential office in Seoul.

In the 50-minute chat, Fukuda and Lee reaffirmed trilateral cooperation along with the U.S. to urge North Korea to fulfill its denuclearization promises. But the details of how to step up their cooperation have yet to be decided.

In Tokyo, Vice Foreign Minister Mitoji Yabunaka said, “It is an issue to be discussed from now over what kind of level talks are to be held or what kind of issues should be discussed.”

On bilateral cooperation in dealing with North Korea, a Japanese government source said that at the least, Tokyo and Seoul are expected to engage in more communication, which up to now has been lacking.

But the source also said a drastic change in South Korea’s decade-old engagement policy toward North Korea is unlikely, given that Lee chose Yu Myung Hwan as foreign affairs and trade minister.

“I have been expecting South Korea’s policy toward North Korea to shift under Mr. Lee . . . but I think Mr. Yu is a person who thinks Japan should provide aid to North Korea. So in that sense, I don’t think there will be an immediate major change,” the source said.

Seoul has been more eager to give aid in exchange for North Korean cooperation under Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo Hyun. But Tokyo has refused to contribute economic aid for Pyongyang unless progress is made on resolving the issue of the North’s abduction of Japanese nationals — a policy it has maintained even after the six parties struck a denuclearization-for-aid deal last year.

While the six-party negotiations aimed at ending the North’s nuclear ambitions have stalled since Pyongyang missed an end-of-2007 deadline to give a full account of its nuclear activities, the abduction issue has also not shown any progress, even though Fukuda, who took office last September, has expressed a willingness to resolve the issue with a more flexible approach than his hardline predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

Following Lee’s inauguration, Japan plans to seek to reinforce cooperation and coordination between the two countries’ policies toward North Korea, but a Foreign Ministry official said such moves are unlikely to bring “a direct change” to the abduction issue.

Takashi Inoguchi, a political science professor at Chuo University, said Lee may have more interest in the abduction issue than Roh, but his priority would still be bringing economic development to the country by such means as investing in North Korea.

“Unless South Korea’s policy toward the North starts to show some positive signs, I think full cooperation between Japan and South Korea will be difficult on the abduction issue,” Inoguchi said.

While adopting a united front against North Korea will be a pressing task, bilateral ties will remain sensitive over such issues as lingering resentment in South Korea caused by Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the territorial row over a cluster of South-controlled islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.

Lee has expressed willingness to develop relations with Japan without taking an emotional view of historical issues. But political pundits say he may still be urged to take a stern stance if the issues flare up again and may draw strong opposition from within his own country.

When Roh took office in February 2003, he and then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was in office from 2001-2006, agreed in their first summit in Seoul to build a “future-oriented” relationship.

But the two nations saw their ties sour in the following years due to disputes in part over Koizumi’s repeated controversial visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, the contents of Japanese history textbooks and the islets.

Fukuda, known for promoting amicable relations with other parts of Asia, has said he will opt not to visit the shrine.

But a senior Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said South Korean administrations tend to be affected by “overheated public opinions” and there is no guarantee the Lee administration would not “make a shift” in its current policy of attaching importance to relations with Japan.

Meanwhile, Inoguchi said Fukuda, who suffers sagging support ratings at home, seems to be achieving successful results in what he terms “active Asian diplomacy,” steadily reinforcing Japan’s ties with key neighbors.