SEOUL – South Korean Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Thursday that Seoul would welcome a summit between President Moon Jae-in and Japan’s future head of state Fumio Kishida, stressing that such a meeting is essential to repair frayed ties.
“I think we need a summit between the heads of state or government at any time when diplomatic officials can discuss it,” said Kim Nikkei Asia in an exclusive interview. He expressed the hope that such bilateral meetings would “become a platform to build a strong peace in the region that includes China, North Korea, Russia and the US”.
The Seoul proposal comes a day after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan elected Kishida as its new chairman, which means he will replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga next week.
Kishida will inherit a relationship with South Korea that has been shaken by problems related to the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, including compensation for war labor and so-called comfort women who worked in Japanese military brothels. The sovereignty of the islands controlled by South Korea, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, is another point of friction.
However, Kim suggested that Kishida’s inauguration might offer a chance for a thaw, given the new premier’s experience. Kishida was Japan’s foreign minister in 2015 when the Shinzo Abe government signed a treaty with the government of then South Korean President Park Geun-hye to resolve the problem of comfort women.
Aside from a summit, Kim said South Korea would consider opening it up to travelers from Japan, after consulting with health officials and the State Department, as Japan appears to have brought COVID-19 infections under control.
“The two countries should try to get closer in everyday life,” said the Prime Minister. “I think we should create an atmosphere among them in which people in both countries can come and go much more freely than they do now.”
Kim said this was difficult when Japan’s coronavirus cases were spike, but now that the numbers have dropped, it is possible. The registered daily infections have fallen from over 24,000 in August to a seven-day average of around 2,000. South Korea averages around 2,500, although cases are on an upward trend.
South Korea is considering a so-called “With Corona Policy” from the end of October if more than 70% of the population should complete their vaccinations. Like Singapore and some other Asian countries, it aims to transform life with COVID-19, balance precautionary measures while allowing normal economic activity.
Before the pandemic, Japan was one of the most popular destinations among South Korean travelers, with millions of visitors each year.
With regard to North Korea, the Prime Minister called for a step to reduce Pyongyang’s isolation: allow the North to return to the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee banned North Korea from participating in the upcoming Beijing Games in February after refusing to participate in the Tokyo Games this summer.
“Given the IOC’s pursuit of peace for humanity, I ask the committee to generously consider giving North Korea another chance to join the international community,” said Kim.
Although Seoul has not yet made this stance official, Kim said the government is ready to actively share this opinion with the IOC.
There is a precedent for the North to participate in the Olympics, which leads to diplomatic advances. North Korea sent athletes and a high-level delegation, including Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, to the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Summit meetings with South Korea and the USA followed.
However, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang have cooled since 2019 after the US and North Korea failed to reach an agreement on denuclearization.
On the home front, the prime minister said he was expecting the country’s family-run conglomerates, aka chaebolTo do business according to international standards.
Samsung Electronics vice chairman Lee Jae-yong was paroled in August after serving more than half of a 30-month prison sentence for corruption. The decision raised new questions about equality under the law in South Korea, where convicted business titans are often lenient.
“I admit that there were some dark sides when the Korean economy grew rapidly,” said Kim. “But since the third and fourth generations follow the second generation, they know what the international community demands, such as transparency and responsibility.”