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Seoul-Tokyo ties facing inflection points

Posted August. 20, 2019 07:42,   

Updated August. 20, 2019 07:42


The foreign ministers of South Korea, China, and Japan will hold a three-day trilateral meeting in Beijing starting Tuesday. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will sit down together again, 18 days after the ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Bangkok on Aug. 2. Starting with the upcoming encounter, the two countries are set to face a series of inflection points in their rocky relationship. Saturday is the deadline for South Korea to decide whether to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) while Tokyo’s exclusion of Seoul from its “white list” is expected to take effect on next Wednesday.

The bilateral ties between the two countries, which have sunk to their lowest level since Japan imposed export curbs on South Korea in early July, appear to have a chance to improve on the occasion of President Moon Jae-in’s National Liberation Day speech last week. “If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands,” Moon said during the address. Japanese media and intellectuals are also raising their voice calling for dialogue and resolution.

Seoul is waiting for Tokyo to take a more forward-looking approach, while maintaining its strategic ambiguity on the issue of the GSOMIA. Japan has already revealed its stance to keep the GSOMIA in place, and the United States has also expressed its hope to maintain the agreement on several occasions. However, if Japan chooses to take another step that will further deteriorate the bilateral relationship, voices against an extension of the GSOMIA will definitely get louder in South Korea.

South Korea had earlier considered an option to expand the scale of Dokdo defense drills in response to Japan’s imposition of export restrictions, but has decided to take a step back and downscale the drills unless the bilateral relations get worse. If Japan shows a forward-looking attitude, it may be possible for South Korea to consider a dispatch of a congratulatory delegation to Tokyo in time for the ceremony of enthronement of Japan’s Emperor Naruhito on Oct. 22.

Japan’s local media outlets have also called for the two countries to make concessions to improve the relations. The Asahi Shimbun proposed in one of its recent editorials that President Moon’s National Liberation Day speech should serve as a chance for the neighbors to put an end to the tit-for-tat retaliations and engage in dialogue to resolve the disputes. The ball is now in Japan’s court, but the South Korean government also needs to make efforts to continuously send a message of dialogue and compromise. To that end, the two countries’ top diplomats should be able to save the momentum for dialogue at the upcoming meeting.