Photo/IllutrationJapanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, greet each other ahead of bilateral talks May 23 in Paris. (Pool)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Relations between Japan and South Korea haven't been this bad in decades, yet Foreign Minister Taro Kono is optimistic things will improve.

It turns out that he may have an ace card up his sleeve.

Numerous issues dogging bilateral ties have put them at their lowest level since 1965, when the two neighbors normalized their diplomatic relations.

Despite uncertainties about whether the rift can be healed anytime soon, Kono clings to the close rapport he has developed with his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha.

That bond predates a particularly chafing ruling in Japan's eyes by South Korea's Supreme Court last October that Japanese companies must pay compensation to Koreans who said they were mobilized to work in Japanese factories and mines during World War Ⅱ.

At the time, the Korean Peninsula was a Japanese colony. Japan insists the issue was settled under the terms of the 1965 agreement that restored diplomatic ties.

Outwardly, Kono and Kang would appear to have little in common. When they greeted each other with a handshake prior to holding talks in Paris on May 23, they posed for photos for five seconds in front of reporters but kept their eyes averted from each other. Even when Kang smiled at Kono, he moved toward his seat without glancing at her.

Kono opened the meeting by stating that Seoul “does not understand the significance of the problem” raised by the Supreme Court ruling. To the media representatives in attendance, his critical tone sounded like he was scolding Kang.

He referred to a South Korean Foreign Ministry press secretary who told a news conference earlier in the day that “there would be no problem if Japanese companies acted in accordance with the top court ruling.”

As far as Tokyo is concerned, the remark was unacceptable in light of the 1965 agreement.

After the bilateral talks ended, Kono vented his frustration with reporters, indicating he was unable to make headway with Kang.

“(I told her that) the problem cannot be resolved unless President Moon Jae-in takes appropriate steps,” said Kono.

Although he chided Kang, the pair apparently enjoy close personal relations. They sometimes talk with each other on their mobile phones without the help of bureaucrats, according to a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

COCKTAIL PARTY

On May 26, after his return from Paris, Kono mentioned in a speech he gave in Toyokawa, Aichi Prefecture, about how he and Kang met for the first time.

He recalled that it was in August 2017 shortly after he became foreign minister and during a cocktail party in Manila for ASEAN foreign ministers and other diplomats.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other prominent diplomats were in attendance. At some point, Kono wandered off to a corner of the room.

But “another person was also wandering nearby,” according to Kono, and it was Kang, who had just taken office like Kono.

“Two newcomers moved from elsewhere when the new semester started,” said Kono, likening themselves to transfer students.

Before she became foreign minister in June 2017, Kang held many important positions, such as senior adviser on policy to the U.N. secretary-general. She is fluent in English, as is Kono.

Kono and Kang realized at the party that they shared a kindred spirit, and they vowed to help each other. Kang is said to talk with Kono more frequently than with any other foreign minister.

FEELING CLOSE

Kono is said to have a deep affection for South Korea.

When Nam Gwan-pyo, newly appointed as ambassador to Japan, paid a courtesy call on Kono at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo on May 13, Kono spread five fingers on his hand and said, “This is how many Japanese politicians are now sympathetic to South Korea,” according to a source close to both Tokyo and Seoul.

Kono reportedly added: “I am one of those politicians. Let’s overcome difficulties together!”

On another occasion, he spoke about his experiences as a college student to demonstrate his strong bonds with South Korea.

On Nov. 29, 2018, when South Korea's top court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to pay damage compensation for wartime labor, Kono emerged in front of reporters without response guidelines prepared by bureaucrats and began talking spontaneously about his past.

"When I studied at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Kim Dae-jung, who later became South Korea's president, lived in suburban Washington D.C. and invited me for a meal at his home,” he said.

Kono then went on to blast the ruling, saying it “completely overthrows the most fundamental legal foundation of relations between Japan and South Korea, making it difficult to maintain ties between the two nations.”

Kono, at a Nov. 6 news conference, described the South Korean top court’s decision last October as an “unlawful act,” drawing harsh criticism from the South Korean side.

Kono apparently had expected a sharp response, but was trying to make Seoul understand how serious the issue is by later showing his bonds with and affection for South Korea.

“He appeared to be filled with emotion,” said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official, looking back on that time.

KONO'S END-GAME

Despite uncertainty over the future of ties between Tokyo and Seoul, Kono is seemingly keen to find a way to heal the rift by expressing both criticism and affection.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Kono may have in mind the process that led to a landmark pact that was intended to resolve decades of dispute over "comfort women."

That agreement, announced by then Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, in December 2015, was hailed by the international community as solving the long-standing issue between Japan and South Korea.

“Kono strongly believes Tokyo-Seoul relations will finally be improved by the foreign ministers of both sides,” the ministry official said.

According to the official, Kono wants to be careful not to spoil his relationship with Kang, especially in light of North Korea's unpredictable behavior.

On May 9, North Korea launched yet another short-range ballistic missile, triggering renewed calls for stronger cooperation between Tokyo, Washington and Seoul.

Kono, speaking May 25 in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, said, “Japan, South Korea and the United States have to scrum closely to stop North Korea as quickly as possible.”

Kono also touched on bilateral relations with Seoul, saying, “To be honest, I want to mend ties because having many problems with a scrum partner will hamper things from going smoothly.”