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[Speaking Out] Avoiding a New Apology to South Korea was Commendable

Kishida was correct not to issue a new apology to South Korea. But what about the radar incident, and will the next government abide by the agreements?



South Korean report
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attend a Japan-South Korea summit on April 16 at the Prime Minister's Office. (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

When South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol visited Japan on March 16-17, I was in South Korea. Media outlets in South Korea reported the president as having made a major concession over the issue of wartime Korean workers in Japan. They also focused on whether Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would offer a clear apology about the issue. 

The South Korean government had decided to have a government-affiliated foundation pay compensation to former Korean workers to solve the issue. But leftist opposition groups' banners could be seen in various locations, questioning why South Korea should pay compensation for what Japan did. At talks with the South Korean president in Tokyo, Kishida voiced his intention to inherit past Japanese administrations' historical perceptions. He also refrained from offering any new apology to South Korea. Kishida's attitude is commendable.

Particularly, it was commendable for him to say that he would inherit "past historical perceptions," instead of "past apologies." This is because historical perceptions, though including a moral apology, cover Japan's legal position that Japan's rule of the Korean Peninsula was legal and that the wartime mobilization of workers did not constitute forced recruitment or forced labor.

South Korea
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida enter the prime minister's office on March 16. (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Agree to Disagree

"As we think [the wartime mobilization of workers] did not constitute forced labor under the Forced Labor Convention, it is inappropriate to describe [the wartime mobilization] as forced labor," Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told the House of Representatives Security Committee on March 9. This was just before Yoon's visit to Tokyo. While Japanese media failed to report what Hayashi said, South Korean TV stations repeatedly reported Hayashi's remark. However, rightist media supporting President Yoon did not condemn the remark as absurd.

Historical perceptions in one country cannot be exactly the same in another country. Countries have no choice but to agree to disagree on historical perceptions. We can say Japan and South Korea did return to that line at their latest summit talks.

However, Japan has to deal with South Korea while anticipating that any agreement with a government may be reversed if a leftist opposition party takes power. "A final national policymaker after the five-year presidential term will be a different person," said Lee Jae Myung. He leads the Democratic Party of Korea, a leftist opposition group that denounced President Yoon's Japan visit as representing humiliating and unpatriotic diplomacy. Lee thus predicted that his party may turn the tables if it wins back the government.

Yoon Suk-yeol and Kishida attend a joint press conference after the Japan-South Korea summit on March 16 at the Prime Minister's Office. (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Shelving the Radar Incident was Regrettable

Under ordinary circumstances, even Japan and South Korea should be able to share their perceptions about truths. But they have fallen short of doing so. However, my book about Korean comfort women and workers has been translated and published in South Korea. South Korean scholars, journalists, and activists who agree with my claim that comfort women and workers were not forcibly recruited have intensified activities.

On March 15, an anti-Japanese group that erected a comfort woman statue held a street rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. On the same street, people who were against the anti-Japan group demanded the removal of the statue. Surprisingly, while the former rally drew some 30 people, the latter drew three times that number, or more than 90. They were carrying Japanese and South Korean national flags. I delivered a speech at the latter rally, which was met with a big round of applause.  

Regrettably, the Kishida administration failed to condition the Kishida-Yoon summit on the resolution of the radar incident. In 2018, a South Korean naval ship directed its fire-control radar at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft.

When I told a friend in South Korea that the Self-Defense Force officers and the defense community were still angered at the incident, the friend said, "If so, Kishida should have told Yoon clearly that bilateral relations cannot be improved unless South Korea admits the radar direction."


(A version of this article was first published by the
Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #1027 in Japanese on March 20 and in English on March 23, 2023.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Koreas.