Thursday marked one year since the inauguration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and comes amid a sudden about-face from North Korea on its nuclear weapons and missile program, which could defuse the nuclear crisis it had created and stage a dramatic reconciliation with the South.
Throughout the crisis, Japanese experts and diplomats have been deeply concerned the liberal South Korean leader Moon could prioritize relations with Pyongyang over the interests of longtime allies, namely Japan and the United States.
They also are worried Moon could someday raise diplomatic tension with Japan over sensitive historical and diplomatic issues to drum up support of voters, as has been repeated many times by several of his predecessors.
However, two notable Japan-based experts interviewed by The Japan Times now say Moon appears to be a more practical leader than generally believed.
He is likely to continue to try to manage a positive Tokyo-Seoul relationship as he understands its importance, although lingering historical issues will remain headaches for the two countries, they said.
“When the administration was formed last year, we were watching what it would actually do in action because the administration was left-leaning and their power base in parliament was weak,” said Kan Kimura, a Kobe University professor and an expert on Korean affairs.
“But after a year, it has become clear that the administration is pretty pragmatic. They don’t prioritize disputes over historical issues too much,” he said.
Kimura also pointed out that Moon now boasts strong support among voters.
A recent poll by Gallup Korea, released May 4, showed Moon’s approval rating hitting 83 percent, jumping from a rating of 73 percent in the last week of April.
This popularity will make it politically easier for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to talk with Moon over “difficult” historical issues, including “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, Kimura noted.
Tokyo managed to clinch a landmark 2015 deal over the issue with Seoul when the power base of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye was rather stable, Kimura pointed out.
Japan should therefore urge Moon to tackle difficult historical matters — such as a recent incident where activists in Busan attempted to erect a statue symbolizing laborers forcibly taken to Japan during its colonial rule over the peninsula — and not pin hopes on a future South Korean administration that will somehow resolve such issues, Kimura said.
Kimura also said that Japan, rather than just relying on its relationship with the U.S., should use South Korea as a “middleman” in negotiations with the North.
Indeed, Tokyo has its own reasons to seek a sound relationship with Seoul as it looks to manage ties with Pyongyang.
Tokyo has called for the complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea and the abolition of short-to-medium range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan. The Abe administration has also demanded the return of Japanese citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 80s.
In tackling those issues, South Korea’s close cooperation is considered a must.
Yuki Asaba, professor and Korea expert at the University of Niigata Prefecture, said Seoul has another reason to maintain a sound relationship with Japan as South Korea values Japan as a key player in negotiating with the North.
Under the 2002 Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, Japan agreed to provide North Korea with economic assistance if the bilateral relationship is ever normalized. DPRK is the acronym of North Korea’s formal state name.
Thus Japan would be asked to extend economic assistance to the North if Pyongyang agrees to denuclearize and try to improve its relationship with other countries, Asaba said.
“South Korea wants Japan to have direct (dialogue) with North Korea,” he said.
“That’s very important for bringing stabilized peace to the region,” he said.
At the same time, Asaba doesn’t believe the two countries will be able to quickly get rid of friction stemming from thorny historical issues.
In April, it was reported that Tokyo formally protested a planned menu item at the dinner reception following the inter-Korea summit: a dessert featuring a decorative flag of the two Koreas — as well as the disputed Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan, which are under South Korean control.
However, South Korea is aware that the territorial disputes “should not interrupt the settlement of a larger regional issue,” Asaba said. Meanwhile Kimura of Kobe University said Aug. 14, which Seoul designated last year as a day of remembrance for comfort women, might be the next challenge to test the Seoul-Tokyo relationship.
Moon made the comfort women issue a component of his presidential campaign and Kimura said the South Korean government is likely to organize a ceremony on that day and invite Japanese government officials to attend.
Tokyo’s reaction to such a request could be a telling sign for the health of the relationship between the two countries, he said