The Biden administration’s efforts to use the G-7 summit meeting to soothe relations between South Korea and Japan were unsuccessful because of long-standing sensitive historic issues and sovereignty disputes between America’s Asian allies.
Washington had encouraged a bilateral meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
South Korea’s foreign ministry claims Suga called off the scheduled meeting in response to Seoul’s announcement of military exercises to practice defending Dokdo Island, which Japan claims as Takeshima Island. The U.S. does not take a position on the disputed sovereignty, instead referring to the islands as Liancourt Rocks.
Japanese government spokesman Katsunobu Kato denied the report that the first meeting between Suga and Moon had been scheduled. While the Biden administration did not schedule an official meeting, it was encouraged—and expected—that a meeting would take place during the summit.
Suga declared that conditions were not right because South Korea “isn’t keeping its promise [and Moon needs to first] exercise his leadership and clearly settle this [historical] problem.”
Prior to the G-7 summit, there were encouraging signs of potential progress on addressing the contentious historical issues between both nations. Moon extended an olive branch to Tokyo during the March 1st Movement anniversary celebration of Korea’s 1919 independence effort against Japanese occupation.
Moon downplayed nationalist themes and instead called for a future-oriented relationship that separated difficult historical issues from current and future challenges. Moon called on both sides to “sit down together while seeking to understand each other’s position.”
The Biden administration brokered meetings among senior U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with his counterparts in April to discuss North Korea and other security issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
In May, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken met with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi at the G-7 ministerial meeting prior to the latter two having their own meeting.
In early June, the Seoul Central District Court dismissed a civil damages lawsuit brought by 85 South Korean plaintiffs against 16 Japanese companies for forced labor during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The court ruled that the lawsuit would violate the Korea-Japan Treaty of 1965 that formalized relations between both countries.
This countered a 2018 South Korea Supreme Court ruling that ordered two Japanese companies pay compensation to South Korean citizens for wartime forced labor. That ruling triggered a series of Japanese and South Korean retaliatory steps and harsh rhetoric that led to the current downturn in bilateral relations.
Despite the G-7 summit’s setbacks, the Biden administration should continue efforts to improve relations between America’s critically important Asian allies by separating centuries-old historic animosities away from current issues.
Several Biden administration officials, including President Joe Biden, Blinken, and Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council Asia policy coordinator, participated behind-the-scenes in efforts to repair relations between South Korea and Japan during the Obama administration.
Their efforts enabled Seoul and Tokyo to reach a 2015 agreement on “comfort women,” a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial military during World War II.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden personally interceded with then-President of South Korea Park Geun-hye and then-Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe to organize a bilateral meeting. Biden should also arrange a trilateral summit with Moon and Suga.
The rest of the G-7 summit and the NATO leaders meeting were more successful in dealing with Asian security issues. Both conferences issued strong statements on North Korea, affirming the need for its capital, Pyongyang, to comply with U.N resolutions by abandoning its nuclear and missile programs in a verifiable and irreversible manner and for all nations to fully implement required sanctions.