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How Will the New South Korea Foreign Minister Match With Japan's Top Diplomat?

South Korea nominated Cho Tae-yul as foreign minister. He is a shrewd politician like Yoko Kamikawa and China wants to keep them from forging a strong alliance.



South Korean Foreign Minister candidate Cho Yong-yeol (right), former ambassador to the United Nations, and National Security Agency Director Cho Tae-young (National Intelligence Service Director) attend a press conference announcing personnel appointments, December 19, Seoul. (©Yonhap via Kyodo News)

In a different way from South Korea, matchmakers have played a crucial role in arranging romantic introductions in Japan.

Their mission is to find eligible partners for single people - especially those from noble or educated backgrounds.

"In Japan, the practice of omiai has evolved from ancient times, when samurai families arranged marriages for their offspring to consolidate power and protect their wealth." This is how Cynthia Kim Beglin, a writer on Asian culture, explains the custom. 

These days, there is less demand for matchmakers than in previous centuries. Nevertheless, I still sometimes encounter older couples who were paired through omiai. Their relationships flourished into love, cementing family bonds.

Consulting the Shaman

In South Korea, matchmaking traditionally falls to women known as jung-me. 

"The jung-me's job is more complicated than that of matchmakers in Japan," says Ms Beglin. "Not only must the candidates' bloodlines, finances, and education levels be compatible, but so too, the year, month, day, and hour of their births must be determined by examining astrological charts. Sometimes the jung-me even hires a mudung, or Korean shaman, to consult the spirits of the ancestors, to assure that the match is a good one."

To me, this sounds like an arduous process that feels much more serious than today's modern dating apps.


What, I wonder, would matchmakers and shamans make of the recent pairing of Yoko Kamikawa, 70, and Cho Tae-yul, 68? They are the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea.

Foreign Minister Kamikawa speaks to the press on October 15. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (©Kyodo)
Cho Tae-yul (September 2015, Wikimedia Commons free images)

Political Alignment

We need not concern ourselves with any gossip about romantic synergy between this mature and distinguished pair. The question to consider is whether they are compatible politically.

Both are experienced at handling difficult issues and have proved to be shrewd political operators. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may well believe that Ms Kamikawa is the right person to advance Japan-South Korea relations. This went through a significant rapprochement in 2023. Kamikawa is also a keen advocate of dialogue with the Korean side.

Cho Tae-yul, the nominee for South Korean foreign minister, is a veteran diplomat with an impressive career. His expertise includes trade.

He has not yet said much about Japan. But he does seem to be taking a dovish approach to China

"Given that the relations between Korea and China are no less important than the South Korea-United States alliance, I will strive to seek ways to maintain the bilateral ties harmoniously," Mr Cho told reporters as he prepared for a parliamentary confirmation hearing.

US Secretary of State Blinken, Foreign Minister Kamikawa, and outgoing South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin join hands on September 22 in New York. (Photo provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Kyodo)

Testing Washington's Patience

As a leading diplomat, Mr Cho has to consider many things when he speaks. He must show respect to America's hard-working Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Therefore, it may have been something of a faux pas to state that his country's relations with China should be maintained at the same level as with those with America.

Secretary Blinken said during his annual press briefing in December that the US will continue to engage with China "from a position of strength." He further emphasized that US partnerships in the Indo-Pacific have never been stronger.

He also praised the "historic" steps toward a new era in trilateral cooperation. 


"Over the last year, Korea and Japan have continued to address difficult and sensitive issues of history, while pursuing an increasingly ambitious and affirmative agenda. And this starts with the political courage and personal commitment of their leaders," said Mr Blinken.

These are encouraging remarks, designed to keep the South Korean government looking towards a bright future with its partners. Of course, the political environment in Tokyo is currently tense and an election looms in the US. But the new year starts with encouraging signs of dialogue. 

That is quite an achievement. Especially given that Xi Jinping has been consolidating power around himself and courting the other heads of non-democratic countries. For example, such states as Russia, Belarus, and Iran. 

A Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile is launched during what North Korea says is a drill at an unknown location on December 18, 2023. (©KCNA via Reuters)

More North Korean Missiles

The most dire and immediate threat to the security of Japan and South Korea comes from North Korea

Kim Jong Un recently oversaw the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles which can reach anywhere in Japan or the mainland United States. That is according to Japan's Parliamentary Vice Minister of Defense, Shingo Miyake.

Japan immediately condemned these actions in the strongest possible terms. But China did not comment. Furthermore, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un has vowed to "promote cooperative relations" with China and Russia.

In December, Japan, South Korea, and the US activated a system to share real-time information on North Korean missiles.

However, China does not wish to see close military cooperation between its rivals. A few years ago, Xi Jinping tried to disrupt the South Korean economy after the government in Seoul agreed to buy missile defense systems from America. 

South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul. (© Sankei by Kota Kiriyama)

Trouble in the Courts

Another troublesome issue continues to disrupt cordial bilateral relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan. South Korean courts have once again been coming out with rulings suggesting that Japanese companies should pay money to the families of people who claim that they were victimized during the colonial period, many decades ago.

From a diplomatic perspective, it would be sensible to put a stop to such vexatious cases, for the sake of regional harmony. But on this issue, President Yoon Suk-yeol seems to be sending mixed signals. On the one hand, he wants to summon Japan's Prime Minister Kishida to South Korea for a meeting with Xi Jinping. On the other hand, he seems to think that Japan has endless patience to go back over the wartime compensation issue.


That strikes me as a misreading of the political mood. Foreign Minister Kamikawa made her position clear in November 2023, when she issued a statement, saying the court actions in Seoul are "clearly contrary to international law and agreements between the two countries, and therefore extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable."

As the new foreign minister, Cho Tae-yul has some homework to do before the hard work starts after his confirmation. He would do well to study the recent statements and speeches by Foreign Minister Kamikawa and Secretary of State Blinken. 

Shamans and astrologers cannot be relied upon to tell him the best course forward. He must therefore trust his own wise judgement when it comes to picking partners in the Indo-Pacific.


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on
JAPAN Forward.

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