July 21, 2024

By Kang Seung-woo

The relationship between Korea and Japan, often considered one of the most challenging partnerships in the modern international system, appears to have stabilized.

As one of his primary foreign policies, President Yoon Suk Yeol showed determination, upon his inauguration in 2022, to normalize bilateral ties that were strained during the previous Moon Jae-in administration due to issues over Japan’s wartime atrocities stemming from the island nation’s 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

Despite strong criticism, Yoon decided last year not to demand compensation from Japan for wartime forced labor and his decision paved the way for a series of summits with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul and Tokyo through what they called “shuttle diplomacy” or regular reciprocal visits by the countries’ leaders. Also, the reconciliation enabled the reactivation of suspended trilateral military cooperation with the United States.

The dramatic warming of bilateral ties is particularly evident in the countries’ tourism sectors, as Japanese citizens topped the list of inbound travelers to Korea and vice versa in 2023.

The Korea Tourism Organization reports that Japanese tourists, totaling 2.32 million, claimed the top spot among foreign visitors to Korea, followed closely by 2.02 million Chinese and 1.09 million Americans. This marked a significant shift, as it was the first time since 2012 that Japanese tourists surpassed all others to become the top inbound travelers to Korea.

Conversely, of the 25.07 million tourists who visited Japan last year, the largest contingent hailed from Korea, totaling 6.96 million—a more than six-fold increase from 2022, when it stood at 1.01 million.

And the reconciliatory sentiment reached a fever pitch last week as Shohei Ohtani, a Japanese-born baseball star playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, visited Korea for a season-opening series with the San Diego Padres as part of the Major League Baseball World Tour.

To grab a rare opportunity to see him in real life, hundreds of Korean baseball fans flocked to Incheon International Airport and extended a warm welcome to the Japanese athlete – a rare scene in the country where it was socially unacceptable to openly admire and cheer for Japan or its people even a few years ago, as evidenced by anti-Japanese sentiment that discouraged traveling to Japan or buying Japanese products.

In this regard, “Ohtani fever” is believed to have played a role in mitigating tensions between the two nations, especially among Koreans, and fostering further enhancements in bilateral relations, as reported by both local and international media outlets.

Nevertheless, despite Korea’s persistent endeavors, occasionally criticized for their “low-key” diplomatic approach, and the burgeoning atmosphere of reconciliation, Japan has remained resolute in its stance, showing no signs of returning the favor, and sticking to its flawed perception of history and territory.

Just last week, Japan approved school textbooks that downplay the extent of wartime atrocities and bolster its territorial assertions over Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo. What’s more troubling, the latest 18 editions have been revised to even more significantly diminish the coercive nature of Imperial Japan’s wartime transgressions and fortify its claims to Dokdo, in stark contrast to the previous editions in 2020.

In March 2023, when the government unveiled its strategy to resolve the forced labor dispute with Japan, former Foreign Minister Park Jin remarked optimistically, “The glass is more than half full,” suggesting that further progress could be achieved through Tokyo’s demonstration of a “sincere response.”

A golden opportunity awaits Japan to foster a more harmonious relationship with Korea in the long term. With this in mind, the Kishida Cabinet should consider adopting more proactive stances, avoiding actions that fall short of expectations. It is imperative not to squander this once-in-a-lifetime chance by allowing time to slip away.

The writer is the politics desk editor.

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