Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's visit to South Korea is significant in that it revived the "shuttle diplomacy" format after a 12-year hiatus.
It was a two-day working visit in return for President Yoon Suk Yeol's visit to Japan in March. Kishida's return visit came less than two months after they met in Tokyo. The Japanese leader came to Seoul on Sunday for a summit with Yoon.
The last time a Japanese leader visited Korea was February 2018. At that time, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. Kishida is the first Japanese leader to visit Seoul to discuss pending issues since then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited the South Korean capital in October 2011.
Kishida was originally expected to visit Korea this summer after the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, May 19-21. Moving up his visit indicates his will to respond quickly to Yoon's decision to reach out to Japan.
He paid his respects at the Seoul National Cemetery, where not only the Korean War dead but fighters for independence were buried. This also shows his will to improve relations between South Korea and Japan.
Yoon said he will visit Hiroshima to attend the G-7 summit at Kishida's invitation and together visit a memorial for Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombing in the city. Their visit to the memorial will be a symbolic sight showing their efforts to better relations. Few would believe this is a humiliation as the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea argues.
It is noteworthy that Yoon left open the possibility of Japan's future participation in the Washington Declaration, which outlines measures to establish the nuclear consultative group and strengthen the US' extended deterrence commitment. The declaration was adopted with US President Joe Biden last month.
US-Korea and US-Japan bilateral alliances alone are short of fending off North Korea's mounting nuclear threats.
Security cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan is the only practical way to respond to threats from the bloc of North Korea, China and Russia.
Regarding the issue of the Korean forced labor victims, Kishida said he will succeed to the position of past Japanese cabinets. He said that "my heart aches over the fact that many people had an extremely painful and sad experience in harsh conditions at the time (of colonial rule of Korea)." There was no mention of "apology and self-reflection." His remarks fell short of what the Koreans want to hear, but his words, though they were his "personal thoughts," are a step forward from what he said in his summit with Yoon two months ago.
You must not expect too much at the first attempt. Finding common denominators and increasing the common area from now on is important in improving relations between the two countries.
Both countries are at the starting line again after laying a foundation for the restoration of their relations. They face a long road ahead.
A number of sensitive issues that are hard to resolve through a few shuttle summits are still unresolved. Historical ones are among them.
But there would be no way forward if the two nations stay stuck in the past. As Yoon noted, people must free themselves from the extreme thinking that they cannot cooperate at all unless their historical issues are settled.
International political and security developments, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China's blunt pursuit of hegemony, demand more active cooperation between South Korea and Japan. North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles builds up the need for Seoul-Tokyo joint response.
South Korea and Japan are neighbors sharing universal values including liberal democracy and human rights. Few would hope their relations deteriorate.
Leaders of both countries should meet each other often and strengthen mutual confidence. In this process, historical issues must be resolved, and distorted historical perceptions corrected.