If South Korean media reports are any indication, Seoul has been anxiously waiting for a phone call from Fumio Kishida since Oct. 4, when he became Japan’s new prime minister.
Kishida has not called President Moon Jae-in yet, despite having already talked to other world leaders during his first week in office. After 10 days, Moon is reportedly expected to finally get the call he was waiting for on Friday.
No call to Seoul
Some South Korean media reported this episode rather critically. The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper, for example, wrote: “Despite the fact that it has been a week since Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took office on Oct. 4, the first phone meeting between the leaders of South Korea and Japan has not materialized.”
“It seems that priority was given to friendly countries,” the Hankyoreh continued in a rather self-deprecating tone, “that share ‘fundamental values’ such as the U.S., Australia and India, as well as major countries such as China and Russia that need to manage their relations amid tensions, with the Republic of Korea taking a back seat.”
Moon reportedly sent a congratulatory letter to Kishida on Oct. 4, stating “Let’s work together to develop Japan-South Korea relations in a future-oriented manner. As the two countries share the basic values of democracy and market economy, and are the closest nations geographically and culturally, I hope that we can work together to set an example of cooperation that is typical of neighboring countries.”
The Japanese government neither ignored Moon’s letter nor was going out of its way to hold a telephone meeting with the South Korean leader.
The JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean daily, quoting a Nikkei report from Tokyo, reported that Japan’s “Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office had agreed from the outset that they better not include Seoul among the capitals where Kishida would hold an early phone meeting.” It would be a surprise if the decision had not been intentional.
The general election
The JoongAng Ilbo also quoted the Nikkei in saying that Kishida’s decision had been partly due to his concern about the phone meeting’s negative impact on the upcoming Lower House election scheduled for Oct. 31. I do not believe that the phone call to Seoul would have something to do with the upcoming general election.
Such speculation is presumptuous on the part of South Korea. A single inaugural phone greeting with Moon would not put Kishida in trouble unless Tokyo made huge and unnecessary concessions to Seoul in the eyes of Japanese voters. The reason why Kishida has not called Moon must be more deep-rooted.
A South Korea reference
On Oct. 8, Kishida delivered his first policy speech in the Diet, saying that Japan would “uphold universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” and “work together with the United States, Australia, India, ASEAN, Europe and other allied and like-minded nations,” obviously with South Korea not being included.
As for Tokyo’s relations with Seoul, Kishida said that “South Korea is an important neighbor. In order to restore a healthy relationship, we will strongly urge the South Korean side to take appropriate measures based on our consistent position.”
In addition, Kishida shortened the paragraph on South Korea by deleting a sentence that read: “Currently, relations between our two countries are in a very difficult situation,” which former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had included in his policy speech to the Diet earlier this year.
The Hankyoreh seems to be reading too much into whatever Kishida says or does. The paper criticized that “Japan’s cynical attitude can also be seen” in this speech, adding that the “reference to South Korea only appeared briefly after allies and like-minded nations were mentioned.”
The Hankyoreh also criticized that “the ‘consistent position’ referred to by Prime Minister Kishida means that South Korea must first prepare a solution acceptable to Japan.” The paper also said that omitting the sentence “shows that the Kishida administration is even more indifferent to South Korea than the Suga administration.”
An opinion survey on Japan-South Korea relations conducted in South Korea on Oct. 11 found that 58.4% answered that a positive change in attitude by the Japanese government must come first, while 29.1% said that the South Korean government must take more active steps to improve relations.
Poll results in Japan would probably be the opposite, when it comes to a question of which side must change its attitude first.
In Japan, almost everyone knows that it was the Moon Jae-in administration that nullified the 2015 bilateral agreement on the issue of “comfort women,” which was “resolved finally and irreversibly” between South Korea and Japan with the joint announcement on Dec. 28, 2015.
By the way, there is at least one more person in the United States who may agree with the Japanese government. That is Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. Reportedly, Blinken was deeply involved, though mostly behind the scenes, in the making of the 2015 historic agreement when he was deputy secretary of state.
On the same day that Moon sent his letter of congratulations to Kishida, Blinken issued a shorter but more heart-warming message. “I congratulate Kishida Fumio on his election by the Diet as the next prime minister of Japan. I had the opportunity to work with Kishida-san when he was Japan’s foreign minister and I was the deputy secretary of state. I am grateful for the prime minister’s friendship and his commitment to advancing the shared priorities of our two countries.”
Although he never mentioned South Korea, Blinken remembers what happened in 2015. The U.S. secretary of state’s message shows that his trust lies in a friend with whom he worked so hard to achieve common goals.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.
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