Director of National Intelligence Service Park Jie-won met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday and proposed a new joint declaration between South Korean and Japanese leaders, following the 1998 declaration by Kim Dae-jung and Keizo Obuchi. While Prime Minister Suga’s specific reactions have not been reported, the Japanese media said he was unwilling, citing the fact that the prime minister asked South Korea to come up with opportunities to restore relations.
The state of the current relations between the two countries is clearly shown in a strange form of diplomacy, in which the intelligence force is playing the role of a messenger, rather than an official diplomatic force or an unofficial National Assembly force. It is not normal diplomacy that the director of National Intelligence Service who needs to act stealthily publicly visits Japan with the South Korean president’s message. However, given the current relations between the two countries, it should be considered as a relief that the two countries had any contact and conversation at all. Hopefully, there will be advanced discussions as the members of the Japan–Korea Parliamentarians’ Union will visit South Korea on Thursday.
South Korea and Japan have not made a single step forward after two years of extreme conflicts, tensions, and stalemate, following the Supreme Court’s decision on compensation for the forced labor by Japan. U.S. President Donald Trump did not intervene even though the South Korea-Japan relations worsened almost to the point of termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). For “one-man show” diplomacy centering around himself, President Trump may have seen the strained relations between South Korea and Japan as a nuisance, in which he did not have to get involved. However, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s presidency will be very different.
“We are going to get back in the game. It is no longer the United States alone,” Biden said during his phone conversations with the leaders of Canada and European allies on Tuesday. He announced a comeback of the U.S. as a global leader by leaving behind the unilateral America-first policy of President Donald Trump and returning to the liberal international stance to strengthen alliances and multilateral cooperation. The South Korea-Japan relations are not an exception.
The beginning of Biden’s presidency foreshows stronger alliances to keep China in check and a more consolidated trilateral cooperation system among South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. Biden was willing to play a role in resolving tensions between South Korea and Japan during his years as a vice president by, for example, taking a firm stand on Japan when then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013 and serving as a mediator to reach an agreement regarding the comfort women issue in 2015.
It is not an exaggeration that the U.S.’s influence on many issues from the Treaty on Basic Relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan, which was the beginning and root cause of bilateral conflicts, to the comfort women agreement is absolute. Biden’s presidency means the restoration and even reinforcement of traditional diplomacy in Northeast Asia. The U.S. is not going to stand back as tensions between South Korea and Japan continue to heighten. It may adopt a more forceful stance towards a party, going beyond a simple mediation. South Korea and Japan should look for proactive solutions before it comes to that.