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Koreans remain cautious over 'new era' of Korea-Japan ties

March 17, 2023 - 15:22 By Lee Jaeeun By Lee Jung-youn By Son Ji-hyoung
People watch breaking news on South Korea-Japan summit talks on a TV at Seoul Station on March 16, 2023. Earlier in the day, Yoon began a two-day trip to Japan for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to put strained relations back on track. The summit marks the first time in 12 years that such talks have taken place amid tense relations between the two nations. (Yonhap)

Leaders of South Korea and Japan hailed a new era of bilateral ties strained for years over historic disputes on Thursday, with a list of agreements aimed at bolstering cooperation in the fields of security, economy and culture between the two countries.

The agreements forged during a summit between President Yoon Suk Yeol and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida held in Tokyo, the first in 12 years, came just 10 days after South Korea unveiled a deal with Japan. On March 6, the Korean government said that it would have a Seoul-backed foundation to compensate victims of wartime forced labor, instead, turning away from the supreme court's ruling that ordered two Japanese companies to pay. The deal and the summit that followed shortly appear to have provided a watershed moment for the two countries.

However, Koreans remain cautious over the dramatic progress made in less than two weeks of Japan turning from "frenemy" to "bestie." Some say Yoon should have considered national sentiments toward Japan as many still demand a proper apology for the country's wartime atrocities, while some view the summit as a breakthrough in mending frayed ties and a move towards the future.

"I don't understand why the Korean government is taking such a low profile in this process with Japan.," said a 40-year-old restaurant owner in Seoul. "The government should not ignore the victims and the nation's feelings," she said.

Kim Ga-hui, 19, also said the Korean government seems to be sweeping unresolved historic disputes under the rug and said she believes such agreements made without apologies from Japan would only lead to further conflict in the future.

"Even if the Korea-Japan talks were successful, it can only be viewed critically because it is considered a wrong meeting from the start," she said.

"Criticism of (South Korea's offer of establishing a Seoul-backed foundation to compensate victims) is continuing in Korea. The president should try to understand the people's thoughts before making a move."

A retired banker in his 60s said the Seoul foundation scheme is wrong because money was not what Koreans have been asking for.

"Koreans rather kept seeking it to receive a proper apology. However, the president screwed it up. Yoon made an extreme choice to establish his achievements during his term in office."

Others said the Korea-Japan summit should be evaluated from a practical point of view and that it is the time to move on from the past wrongdoings.

"I want Korea and Japan to make peace about the historical issue. It has been too long and tedious for decades," a 34-year-old businessman surnamed Kwon.

"However, it seems that they are taking a step forward, both diplomatically and economically, by lifting regulations on exports of chip materials in the wake of the summit. So it is good if there are practical benefits."

Kang, a 34-year-old office worker, said he thinks it was right to hold the summit, considering security issues over North Korea's growing nuclear threat.

"I know there are criticisms that there was not enough discussion with the public, but the government got the advantage of making a quick decision by increasing efficiency," he said.

A recent survey in the wake of the new compensation plan, however, indicated Koreans' negative moods toward Seoul's efforts to mend fences with Tokyo.

According to a survey by Gallup Korea of 1,002 respondents from March 8-9, only 35 percent were in favor of the Seoul's third-party compensation to forced labor victims for the national interest of Korea.

Fifty-nine percent opposed Seoul's proposal, provided the proposal missed out on Japan's sincere apology and direct compensation to the victims.

The younger generation tended to be against the decision. By ages of the respondents, 75 percent of those in 30s and 78 percent of those in 40s opposed to the proposal.

On the other hand, the proportion of those against the proposal among people aged between 50 and 59 came to 59 percent. The proportion of such respondents in their 60s stood at 41 percent, and that of people in 70s or older only amounted to 39 percent.

The poll also showed that 3 in 10 prioritized Seoul's step backward regarding the forced labor dispute over Tokyo's sincere apology to seek improved bilateral ties. Sixty-four percent, however, answered that Tokyo's U-turn over the approach to the forced labor issues must precede the improvement of the Seoul-Tokyo relationship.

A majority of those in their 60s, 70s and older answered that a swift improvement in the bilateral relationship should be in place whatever the circumstances. This also showed contrast with that of the younger generation, as less than 20 percent of people in their 30s and 40s responded that improved ties are more important than Japan's apology.

As for whether the contribution to the young generation of Koreans by Japanese companies accountable for the wartime atrocities could be deemed a rightful compensation, 64 percent of respondents said no, while 27 percent said yes. Nearly 80 percent of people in their 30s and 40s said such contribution cannot be accepted as compensation. Less than half of people in their 60s, 70s and older agreed.

Meanwhile, another poll jointly conducted by Kookmin Research Group and Ace Research from Saturday to Monday on 1,020 people indicated that a majority of them expected the ongoing Seoul-Tokyo summit to end on a bad note.

About 57 percent answered that the summit between Korea and Japan will unlikely to thaw the relationship between the two countries, while slightly over 40 percent responded that the summit will lead to an improvement in bilateral ties.

Only those aged 60 or older cast a positive light on the Yoon-Kishida summit, with 55 percent saying the summit will be helpful. The pessimists outweighed the optimists in the rest of the age groups.