Earlier this month, lawmakers from South Korea visited Tokyo for discussions with their Japanese counterparts, meeting briefly with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in the hope of improving ties.

Participants from Japan were members of the Japan-South Korea Parliamentarians’ Association, while the South Korean visitors were from the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Association.

As the two countries remain deeply divided over historical issues, these groups play an important role in behind the scenes diplomacy on all aspects of the bilateral relationship for their respective governments.

What is the Japan-South Korea Parliamentarians’ Association?

The group consists of Diet members in both houses from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, as well as all of the major opposition parties. It is, however, dominated by members of the LDP.

Its history dates back to after Japan and South Korea formalized relations in 1965.

In 1968 there was an informal meeting between legislators from both countries to discuss a range of bilateral issues. These included trade and commerce, the situation of South Korean residents in Japan and security issues.

Those exchanges led to the creation of a friendship association in 1972, and the association adopted its current name in 1975.

The Japanese association’s counterpart is the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Association. The two groups conduct a variety of exchanges and consultations, and often pay courtesy calls to the president of South Korea or the Japanese prime minister, respectively.

Since 2013, former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga has chaired the Japanese group and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura has served as its secretary general.

What are the benefits and risks of these exchanges?

The associations conduct behind the scenes mediation between the two governments, especially on sensitive and controversial issues. This allows for more flexible and open exchanges compared to those that take place in official summit meetings between the Japanese prime minister and the South Korean president, which are always under intense public scrutiny. The association meetings allow both sides to convey unofficial messages from their leaders as well.

There is also the argument that since the association exchanges are between elected representatives of two democratic countries, who have to answer to voters, they serve as an indirect way for Japanese and South Korean citizens to participate in helping to shape bilateral diplomacy.

The disadvantages are that members on both sides may make remarks or take actions that bolster their political profile in a domestic context, but lead to misunderstandings or anger in the other country. Such developments could then create diplomatic problems for the leaders of their respective governments.

How has the relationship between the two associations been in recent years?

Often sensitive relations between Japan and South Korea reached a low point in 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans — or their relatives — who were forced to work for the companies during World War II.

The Japanese government strongly protested the court’s decision, saying that the rights to such claims were settled in 1965, when the two countries normalized ties.

In December 2018, members of the Japanese association visited South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who told them that cautious and restrained language was needed in discussing these historical issues.

Then, in August 2019, after Japan tightened export controls against South Korea, Seoul announced it would take the unprecedented step of withdrawing from a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

Though widely seen as a bluff, due to the accord’s importance for the United States, it forced the association to cancel a planned joint meeting in September. South Korea announced in November 2019 it would not pull out, and the agreement was renewed in August.

What happened at this month’s meeting in Tokyo?

With no sign of a resolution over the wartime labor dispute, the Japanese government notified the South Korean government in October that Suga would not attend a scheduled trilateral summit in Seoul between Japan, South Korea and China, scheduled for December, unless some concessions were made on the issue.

At the same time, however, the dispute and the COVID-19 pandemic have harmed bilateral trade between the two countries, and the December summit had been seen as a way for the three leaders to discuss these and other issues face-to-face.

The Korean association was led by newly elected head Kim Jin-pyo, a former deputy prime minister. Kim expressed regrets that historical issues remained and that there was a negative economic effect.

He added that to resolve the wartime labor dispute, a calmer environment was needed that would help Suga and Moon make decisions.

While there was no breakthrough on the historical issues, the two sides did agree to cooperate toward the Tokyo Olympics, set for 2021, and to continue their dialogue.

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