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Seoul sends a series of signals to Tokyo

Posted November. 16, 2020 07:48,   

Updated November. 16, 2020 07:48


"South Korea has proposed to the leaders of East Asia that we all work closely to ensure high levels of quarantine and security during the two upcoming Olympic games in 2021, Tokyo, and in 2022, Beijing,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a virtual meeting of the East Asia Summit (EAS) last Saturday. He referred to each head of state in the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit held following the EAS, in particular greeting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga by saying, "It is a great pleasure of mine to meet you.” President Moon's greeting remarks came after the previous meetings where the director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and South Korean lawmakers at the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians' Union had an in-person meeting with Prime Minister Suga. Such a series of positive moves may enable Seoul and Tokyo to resolve bilateral issues through dialogue.

Following President Moon’s remarks on the launch of a Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health in September's U.N. General Assembly, he mentioned the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. Moon may intend to gain momentum for the Peace Process on the Korean Peninsula, one of his administration's core goals. Japan is highly likely to see the necessity of improving its relationship with South Korea in order to achieve the success of the Olympic Games on which it has spent a great deal of capital and nation-wide capabilities. Under these circumstances, both of them may feel the need to cooperate with each other so as to address their own issues.  

The key to improving the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo lies in finding the solution to the issues with forced labor victims. It does not make any difference in addressing the unresolved issues if they beat around the bush without touching upon the fundamental causes of the issues. It is the time for Seoul to shift its focus to denuclearization or the bottom line of the Peace Process in the inter-Korean relations. To mend the relationship with Tokyo, it is imperative to have diplomatic negotiations to solve the forced labor issue.

Coincidentally, it may be a good timing from a global perspective that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, highly interested in international cooperation and improvements in the Seoul-Tokyo relationship, appears on the scene. The South Korean government should give priority to the normalization of its relationship with Japan, rather than fretting about the inter-Korean relations. If Seoul fails to handle North Korean issues even if it pays all of its diplomatic attention and care to them, it may likely lead to a series of failures in dealing with other matters.

The South Korean administration has got lost since it tried to solve inter-Korean issues by depending solely on a series of one-time events following the Pyeongchang Olympics where U.S. President Donald Trump appeared only for show. South Korea is required to take a new approach in a new era where Biden sees denuclearization as the key to peace on the Korean peninsula. The right way to go is for Seoul to work aggressively to improve its relationship with Tokyo and garner support and recognition of its neighboring nations. By doing so, it can increase the likelihood of taking the Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity to resume the stalled trilateral dialogue among the two Koreas and the United States. It is never too late to engage in negotiations with Pyongyang after it creates such a favorable environment.

Young-Sik Kim spear@donga.com