National / Politics

Breakthrough elusive as Abe meets South Korean prime minister amid strained bilateral ties

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday met with South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who was in Tokyo this week for the imperial enthronement ceremony, but the leaders failed to make progress in easing highly strained bilateral ties.

The session was among dozens of courtesy meetings Abe held with world leaders who had come to Japan for the ceremony.

Despite the lack of clear progress, Lee handed Abe a personal letter from South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the 20-minute meeting, which was originally scheduled to last just 10 minutes. A briefing from Japanese officials suggested the two countries are still locked in a diplomatic standstill over the wartime labor compensation issue involving Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

According to Japanese officials, Abe repeated the government’s stance during the meeting over the wartime labor issue, saying he hoped that South Korea would “act in accordance with the promises made between” the two countries, referring to the 1965 economic cooperation pact designed to settle all post-colonial compensation issues. The pact was attached to a 1965 basic treaty that normalized the nation’s postwar relations, a result of marathon negotiations.

During the meeting, Lee reportedly claimed in return that South Korea “had always and will continue to comply with” the 1965 pact, effectively claiming that South Korea has not broken any promises.

Bilateral ties have been fraught since late last year, when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for the emotional distress faced by forced wartime Korean workers.

Still, the tone of a press statement released by Tokyo suggested a subtle shift in the countries’ relationship. Although Abe reiterated the oft-repeated government line that South Korea was “breaching” international law, he also added that “the situation cannot stay this way,” suggesting the urgency with which Abe sees the worsening ties.

The contents of the letter from Moon have not been made public. But according to reports by Yonhap News Agency, it details Moon’s commitment to improving ties between the two countries and calls Japan a key partner in maintaining regional peace.

Yonhap also quoted a senior South Korean government official as saying the Lee-Abe talks were expected to serve as a “turning point” in efforts to rebuild ties, as the two sides agreed to hold “brisk, official” follow-up diplomatic consultations. Lee also reportedly said that bilateral diplomacy is expected to gain traction.

But in Tokyo, expectations for the Abe-Lee meeting had been low, as there were no signs of concessions from Tokyo or Seoul over the wartime labor issue. Japanese officials have feared any compromise on the issue could reignite numerous postwar compensation issues even beyond South Korea.Yuki Asaba, a professor well-versed in South Korean issues at Doshisha University, said the fact that Lee reconfirmed the importance of the 1965 agreements is “a step forward” but added that critical differences remain in interpretations of what exactly the agreements mean.

According to the South Korean ruling, the pact didn’t cover the mental suffering of forced wartime laborers under “illegal colonial rule,” but Japan has argued that the pact settled all compensation issues once and for all.

“The crux of the issue is that the understanding of what the treaty means is very different between the two countries,” he said.

Representatives for former forced wartime workers may start liquidating the seized assets of Japanese companies as soon as the end of this year, however, which would present a “point of no return” for South Korea-Japan ties, Asaba said.

The most realistic interim solution “would be to agree to a standstill,” where both countries pledge not to harm their relationship further, he added.

Lee was in Japan to attend the Sokui no Rei enthronement ceremony held on Tuesday. He is known to be knowledgeable about Japan, having lived in the country as a reporter before his career as a politician.

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