Japan-ROK ‘reconciliation’ a political expediency built on porous foundation

In the afternoon on May 2, the President's Office of the Republic of Korea and the Japanese Foreign Ministry both announced that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will pay a two-day visit to the ROK, which, in ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol's words, will formally resume the "shuttle diplomacy" between the two countries' leaders after 12 years.

The same day, a member of the ROK parliament from the country's largest opposition party landed on the disputed Dokdo, or Takeshima as the Japanese call it, to declare ROK sovereignty. In response to the "strong protest" from Tokyo, however, the ROK Foreign Ministry rejected the "wrongful claim". The Dokdo or Takeshima islands are claimed by both Japan and the ROK, but occupied by the ROK.

On Saturday night, representatives of multiple civic groups held a candlelight vigil in the heart of Seoul to protest Kishida's visit, as well as Yoon's foreign policy which they alleged was blindly pro-US and pro-Japan. On the placards and banners on display at the night vigil were slogans demanding apologies from Japan for thrusting Koreans into forced labor before and during World War II, condemning Japan for deciding to release radioactive wastewater from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea, opposing the US-Japan-ROK military alliance, and censuring the Yoon government for its "humiliating diplomacy" with Japan.

Both governments have attached great importance to the ongoing Kishida visit, because they expect it to repair the long uneasy bilateral relationship at a time of "greater strategic uncertainty". Perhaps, equally, if not more, important, is its obvious significance to Washington's geopolitical ambition in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is also a preparatory step toward the planned summit among the US, Japanese and ROK leaders in Japan later this month.

During his visit to the US, Yoon finally sided with Washington in the unfolding strategic geopolitical game in the region. As the ROK media observed, the US, in its desperation to contain China, is trying to deepen the trilateral security cooperation by binding Seoul and Tokyo, its core Asian allies, together. But, as the ROK media pointed out, the foundation of ROK-Japan reconciliation remains porous. Just like in Japan's relations with its other neighbors, territorial disputes and controversies over Japan's militarist past have never been properly handled by Tokyo, and thus they will continue to haunt Japan-ROK ties.

On historical issues, for instance, the two governments are trying to sweep their differences and disputes under the carpet, instead of seriously dealing with them. Such political expediency may serve their immediate need to shore up strained ties for a while, but it could backfire anytime.