Bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo have been rocky at best, in recent years, as their acrimonious dispute over unresolved historical issues have caused bilateral relations to sink to new lows under the Moon Jae-in and former Shinzo Abe administrations.
So when the new Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga took office to finish Shinzo Abe's term as Prime Minister, there was cautious optimism that relations might improve.
But the last few weeks have proven to be as bumpy as ever, with Suga reportedly suggesting he may sit out a trilateral summit hosted by Korea this year, unless Seoul nullifies its Supreme Court order to Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor. He raised the issue again on Wednesday at a press conference, according to Japanese media.
This was what triggered the tit-for-tat trade war in the summer of 2019, leading to one of the lowest points in Seoul-Tokyo relations in the past few years.
Is there any way out of this decades-long acrimony, or will politicians continue going around in circles?
We discuss the latest developments with Seijiro Takeshita, Dean and Professor, School of Management and Information at the University of Shizuoka.
We're also joined by Kim Byung-joo, Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
1. Dr. Takeshita: Suga has been Prime Minister for about a month, and recently was hit with strong criticism from Seoul and Beijing, as he sent an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine which honors 14 Class A war criminals. He had refrained from visiting or sending offerings to the shrine while serving as Japan's chief cabinet secretary for more than seven years, so why start now, as Prime Minister?
2. Dr. Kim: It strongly conflicts with what PM Suga said during his inaugural press conference last month, that he wants to "maintain stable relations with neighboring countries."
What message does Suga's tribute to war criminals convey to Japan's neighbors, South Korea and China, which were at the receiving end of Japan's wartime atrocities?
3. Dr. Kim: Suga demanded Seoul cancel its Supreme Court's ruling that ordered Japanese firms to compensate surviving South Korean victims of forced labor and suggested he may not attend the annual summit that takes place between South Korea, Japan and China unless Seoul complies to his request. Is this reasonable and would such a move worsen bilateral ties?
4. Dr. Takeshita: What is his foreign policy strategy here? Do you think he has a plan for South Korea right now?
5. To both: On Sunday, Rep. Lee Nak-yon, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, met with Takeo Kawamura, a lawmaker and close confidant of Suga, to discuss pending issues, including the trilateral summit. Would you see this engagement as an encouraging sign?
6. Dr. Takeshita: There are deep historical issues, distrust and discontent on both sides and unfortunately in both countries it has become extremely political. How can we reconcile bilateral ties and move beyond politics?
7. To both: What kind of middle ground should be established between the two countries for any talks on patching up ties to move forward, and who do you think should make the first move?
That was Seijiro Takeshita, Dean and Professor, School of Management and Information at the University of Shizuoka and Kim Byung-joo, Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.