CHENGDU, CHINA – For Japan and South Korea, the resumption of top-level dialogue in and of itself is a major step forward.
Meeting for their first official talks in about 15 months, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent one main message: They will prevent the bilateral situation from spiraling out of control.
That comes as a relief to diplomats who had, until recently, feared the worst of the dispute was yet to come for the Asian neighbors, due to disagreements over compensation for wartime forced labor and Japan’s tightening of export controls.
But Japan and South Korea remain in a state of “mutual distrust” and a return to what Abe has described as a “healthy relationship” won’t be easy, experts say. Continued dialogue can only boost their chances of rebuilding bridges.
“What we’ve seen over the past year are Tokyo and Seoul making their own cases heard, and hoping that the other side would acquiesce. If they stick to an ‘all or nothing’ mentality, they will never meet halfway,” said Hideki Okuzono, an associate professor of South Korean politics and diplomacy at the University of Shizuoka.
“The summit was important in that it signaled some improvement in ties between leaders who had harbored mistrust,” Okuzono said.
In an atmosphere that was “tense at times but not hostile,” about a third of the 45-minute meeting Tuesday in Chengdu, southwestern China, was spent on the contentious issue of compensation for wartime labor, according to a senior Japanese government official. The dispute had sent bilateral ties to their worst state in years.
But Abe and Moon failed to bridge differences in their basic position and no new proposals were made for resolving the issues, sparked by South Korean court rulings a year ago that ordered Japanese firms to provide compensation for wartime forced labor during the 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Japan has consistently argued that the ball is in South Korea’s court and that Seoul has to come up with steps to turn the situation around, based on Tokyo’s view that the compensation issue was settled under a 1965 bilateral accord that has been breached by the court orders.
A turning point came when South Korea decided not to terminate a military intelligence sharing pact in late November, leading to some softening in Japan’s stance. It was Abe himself who announced arrangements were being made for his meeting with Moon.
That was followed by the submission of a bill in the South Korean parliament to seek “voluntary” donations from citizens and businesses from the two countries, to be used as compensation.
Since details of that plan emerged, Japanese government officials have refrained from commenting and have instead largely taken a wait-and-see stance — a change from June when Tokyo rejected outright Seoul’s proposal to create a fund with participation by Japanese firms named in the lawsuits in mind.
Tuesday’s meeting was an opportunity for Abe and Moon to clear up uncertainty or doubt over how they will be able to find a solution to the wartime labor issue, although neither side broached the topic of the South Korean bill, according to a Japanese government source.
Japan is apparently concerned about whether the bill will be compatible with the 1965 agreement regarding the right to seek compensation, and how much Moon and his government will be committed to the initiative.
The envisaged plan is seen as the most viable so far but its feasibility is still in doubt due to domestic opposition in South Korea.
There is no “panacea” for repairing ties, said Okuzono. South Korea’s donation plan may not be perfect but appears to have been carefully thought out so as not to cross Japan’s “red line,” he added.
However, skepticism runs deep in Japan after seeing the Moon administration’s disbandment, earlier this year, of a Japan-funded foundation set up under a 2015 bilateral accord to support former “comfort women.”
The term comfort women is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
“It is a proposal by South Korea, who unilaterally disbanded the foundation,” said Fumio Kishida, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who was foreign minister at the time of the agreement, adding, “I wonder how convincing it can be.”
In November, the General Security of Military Information Agreement between Japan and South Korea was saved amid U.S. pressure, and tensions have somewhat eased over trade.
Those issues should not have been linked to the dispute over compensation for wartime labor, said Yasuyo Sakata, a professor of East Asian security at Kanda University of International Studies.
The first priority is to “untie each knot,” Sakata said.
“Wartime labor is a deep-rooted issue that cannot be solved so easily,” she said. “What needs to be done at the least is to prevent it from getting worse and worse, and control damage.”
As the summit kicked off, Abe and Moon touched on the importance of ties between their respective countries. Moon, whose administration has maintained that the judicial decisions should be respected, said the nations are inseparable despite the difficulties they are now experiencing.
“Japan and South Korea will need to get over it,” Okuzono said. Referring to the South Korean bill to resolve the wartime labor issue, he said, “The plan can serve as a starting point for discussion.”