President Yoon Suk Yeol completed a surprise visit to Tokyo last week. The two leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed to finish the 12-year-old confrontation and open a cooperative relationship toward the future.
As a result, GSOMIA, or the Military Information Protection Agreement, was normalized. Japan will lift export restrictions on Korea, while Korea will drop its WTO complaint over Japan's unfair trade practices. Japan welcomed the Korean government's proposal for a significant concession on the issue of forced labor victims.
Japan has invited President Yoon to the G-7 summit in Hiroshima in May. The moves to improve Korea-Japan relations are almost in line with expectations, as the Korean side has abandoned all its requests regarding forced labor.
However, the Yoon government's policy on Japan is fiercely opposed by Korean society. After the government announced a surprising solution to the forced labor issue on March 6, rallies began weekly in downtown Seoul to denounce President Yoon. Some of the victims of forced labor vowed to resist through legal procedures. One of the victims, Yang Geum-deok, said, "I don't know whether President Yoon is a Korean president or a president of a foreign country."
A group of professors at Seoul National University issued a statement calling for the cancellation of the humiliating solution. Forty-nine academic organizations related to history denounced it as a violation of the spirit of the Constitution. The National Human Rights Commission of Korea joined in the criticism that the solution might infringe on the victims' rights. National Catholic Priests' Association for Justice in Korea strongly condemned it and called for the president's resignation. The opposition Democratic Party is vowing to hold Yoon's diplomacy accountable, calling it a diplomacy of humiliation.
It is disappointing that Japan does not respond with sincere measures even though the Yoon government is offering huge concessions. While announcing the solution, Foreign Minister Park Jin said, "As the Korean government first filled half of the water cup, we expect Japan to fill the other half with sincere measures."
The measures have two elements; the first is that Japanese war criminal companies participate in funds to compensate victims. The second is that the Japanese government comments on the issue with an apology and self-reflection. However, the Japanese side did not do anything. Miserably, it was reported that the Japanese demanded additional concessions from Korea.
Considering that it is not difficult to take sincere measures, Japan's attitude could be more relaxed. Japan might worry that participation in reparations or expressions of remorse acknowledge the legal responsibility of past colonial rule against Korea. However, the Korean government has already adopted a different method from the original ruling by the Supreme Court: third-party reimbursement or a new public fund under the Korean government provides reparation to victims. Even if Japan accepts the solution, it is unlikely that Japan will be disadvantaged.
Japan should take sincere measures for its own interests. Japan is a country that has caused severe damage by invading neighboring countries during imperialism in the past. Neighboring countries cannot help but feel pain from time to time because their memories remain a collective trauma.
Japan is an advanced country in the global village, and to be treated accordingly, the blessings of neighboring countries are needed. Improving Korea-Japan relations is also necessary for Japan. In this sense, carrying out sincere measures for victims of forced mobilization is only a small investment that can win the blessing of Korea.
Japan is the world's third-largest economy and must take sincere measures to contribute to the development of human civilization. One of the essential areas of human civilization is the concept of human rights. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was enacted in 1948. In 2001, the World Conference against Racism was held in Durban, South Africa, officially discussing the issue of making colonial rule illegal.
A joint statement signed by about 1,100 Korean and Japanese intellectuals in 2010 stipulated that Japan's forced annexation of Korea in 1910 was illegal and invalid. In the same year, then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a statement acknowledging that there was coercion in the annexation in 1910. It is natural for Japan, as an advanced representative country, to apologize and reflect on the damage caused by colonial rule.
If Japan does not retake sincere steps this time, President Yoon will be hit hardest because he has decided something that the Korean people object to. Though it is still early in his time in office, President Yoon's approval rating has stagnated at around 40 percent. The rating is falling further since the solution. If Japan fails to fill the other half of the cup, President Yoon's approval rating may fall below 30 percent. The president will face a crisis and possibly impeachment.
If President Yoon faces a crisis, improving Korea-Japan relations will be put on hold, and it will be challenging to increase Korea-Japan military cooperation and Korea-US-Japan military cooperation. This is the exact opposite of what the United States wants. The US will be dissatisfied with Japan if Korea makes a difficult concession and Japan fails to take corresponding measures, which will hamper the improvement of Korea-Japan relations. If Japan takes sincere steps, President Yoon, the United States, and Japanese diplomacy will avoid falling into an uncomfortable dilemma trap.
Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.