Almost a year has passed since the South Korean Supreme Court handed down a ruling ordering Japanese firms to pay damages to wartime forced laborers, setting in motion a series of tit-for-tat measures and widening the rift between Tokyo and Seoul.
The issue has snowballed into a trade dispute and even affected security ties, with South Korea exiting the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).
And while the leaders of both nations have adopted hard lines and have so far failed to find a way forward, politicians in both countries — especially parliamentary unions made up of lawmakers who focus on specific issues — are quietly attempting to pave the way toward reconciliation.
But with the political clout of parliamentary unions waning and diplomatic negotiations predominantly in the hands of the two leaders, it remains to be seen whether parliamentary diplomacy will have any lasting impact.
The unions of both countries that focus on bilateral relations have been meeting on the sidelines over the past year.
Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura has long served as the secretary-general of the Japan-South Korea parliamentarians’ union. He made headlines in early September when he served as a go-between for South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Last week, he was in Kazakhstan to attend a Eurasian Countries’ Parliaments forum in place of Tadamori Oshima, speaker of the Diet, where he spoke to the speaker of the South Korean National Assembly, Moon Hee-sang, about how to mend the troubled ties.
“We discussed the possibility of resolving South Korea’s exit from GSOMIA and Japan’s removal of South Korea from its trade partner whitelist together, but I insisted that the wartime labor issue has to be resolved first,” Kawamura told The Japan Times in an interview.
“But from the nuance of Moon Hee-sang’s words, I got the impression that the agreement that the 1965 treaty is the backbone of the two country’s relationship will stay,” he added, referring to the bilateral pact that normalized ties and was intended to settle compensation for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula “completely and finally.”
Moon Hee-sang is known to be knowledgeable about Japan, but he drew criticism in February when an article published by Bloomberg quoted him as saying that then-Emperor Akihito should apologize to the “comfort women” of South Korea — a contentious suggestion given the taboo of involving the emperor in politics. He has since apologized for his comments. Comfort women is a euphemism for women who worked in wartime brothels, including those who did so against their will, to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
Moon Hee-sang had hoped that the wartime labor issue could be solved within South Korea, but he wasn’t sure whether President Moon Jae-in’s government would be open to the idea, according to Kawamura.
Foreign policy experts largely agree that the centralization of foreign policy focused around state leaders has exacerbated the problem. The bulk of diplomatic negotiations are now being held at the Prime Minister’s Office in Japan and the Blue House in South Korea by the two leaders and their close associates. This represents a shift from a time when bureaucrats and ministry officials were more involved in the decision-making process.
Therefore, despite the best efforts of certain lawmakers in both countries to mend ties, they have been unable to make a breakthrough resembling those seen in the latter half of the 20th century.
For example, Etsusaburo Shiina, who served as Japan’s foreign minister from 1964 to 1966 and was involved in the signing of the 1965 treaty, is credited with alleviating tensions between Tokyo and Seoul by visiting South Korea in 1974. At the time, relations between the two countries had worsened due to a number of high-profile political incidents, including the kidnapping of South Korean lawmaker Kim Dae-jung, who went on to serve as the country’s president, from his hotel in Tokyo in 1973.
But the influence of lawmakers and diplomats on foreign policy has largely waned in recent years.
“Parliamentary unions in both countries aren’t led by politicians who have a say in policymaking anymore,” said Hideki Okuzono, a University of Shizuoka professor and expert on diplomatic relations with South Korea.
Getting involved in reconciliation itself is an unattractive option for some lawmakers because the relationship between the two countries has sunk to new lows and nationalist sentiment is so high that merely getting involved attracts criticism, Okuzono added.
Parliamentary diplomacy also has a history of being criticized for being a form of “dual diplomacy” that goes against the premise that states must present a united front.
Lawmakers deeply involved in diplomatic relations despite not holding high-level government positions — such as Upper House lawmaker Muneo Suzuki of Nippon Ishin no Kai, who has strong ties with Russia — have been slammed for jeopardizing the government’s strategy.
That said, there is still a place for parliamentary unions in broader bilateral relations.
“The relationship between the two countries have sunk to such lows that even the government can’t offer a hand of reconciliation, but that means there’s a niche that parliamentary unions can fill,” Okuzono said.
“They should move independently of the government and try to resolve the situation from a different perspective instead of just repeating the current government policy. … As both governments dig their heels in deeper, the parliamentary unions are in a special position to soften the two government’s hardened stance and make it easier for the government to reach out to one another,” he added.