Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed when they met Tuesday in Chengdu, China, that their governments should maintain diplomatic dialogue to resolve the disputes that have disrupted bilateral relations over the past year — even though they remained far apart on the thorny issue of Koreans mobilized as wartime laborers for Japanese businesses.
Still, it was progress in itself that Abe and Moon held their first formal talks since September 2018. In the absence of summit diplomacy during these past 15 months, Tokyo-Seoul relations nose-dived to what is deemed their worst since the two nations normalized diplomatic ties in 1965. They emphasized the importance of restoring ties between the two countries as close neighbors that share national security interests. If the two governments believe so, they need to follow up on the Abe-Moon talks to keep up the dialogue and stop bilateral ties from spiraling further downward.
In the lead-up to resuming the top-level diplomacy, held on the sidelines of the trilateral summit among the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea, Seoul put on hold its earlier decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, while Tokyo partially eased its tightened control on exports to South Korea of materials crucial for semiconductor production. Abe stressed the importance of close coordination between the two countries — and with their mutual ally, the United States — on regional security challenges, while Moon hailed the two nations as the closest neighbors geographically, historically and culturally.
The bilateral relationship went downhill after South Korea’s Supreme Court in October 2018 ordered Nippon Steel (then Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay compensation to Koreans mobilized to their plants as wartime laborers, during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea — and the South Korean government failed to take action despite Japan’s protests that the court decision runs counter to a 1965 agreement that settled compensation claims deriving from the colonial period in the form of economic aid to Seoul.
The 45-minute meeting Tuesday highlighted the wide gap that still exists between Tokyo and Seoul over this thorny issue. It was significant, however, that Abe and Moon agreed that the matter must be resolved promptly. Moon’s administration needs to realize that restoring relations will be difficult without a solution to this problem.
Japan maintains that compensation claims by the former wartime laborers have been settled by the 1965 agreement that accompanied the basic treaty which normalized diplomatic relations. Seoul says it honors the 1965 accord but maintains that it respects the court decision — that individuals have the right to claim damages for “forced labor” that took place during Japan’s “illegal” rule of the Korean Peninsula — and has not complied with Tokyo’s requests for bilateral consultations on the matter as stipulated under the agreement.
It is a question that concerns the very foundation of bilateral relations established in 1965, and it is irresponsible of Seoul to leave the matter to the judgment of its judiciary. The South Korean government needs to first take a stand and come up with a solution to the issue.
The plaintiffs in the wartime labor lawsuits are reportedly in the process of selling off the assets of Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in South Korea seized on the basis of the Supreme Court rulings. The sale of the seized assets of the Japanese firms will cause irreparable damage to the bilateral relationship. South Korea has the responsibility to take the necessary action to avert such a situation.
Seoul is calling on Tokyo to lift the tightened export controls on semiconductor-related materials to South Korea and reverse its decision to remove South Korea from its list of countries enjoying preferential trade status. Japan has denied that these measures were taken in retaliation over the wartime labor dispute. But South Korea should realize that there won’t be progress on the trade control issues unless there’s progress on the wartime labor dispute and mutual trust is restored.
Restoring the Tokyo-Seoul relationship is all the more urgent as North Korea repeats its provocative acts such as new missile tests that threaten the regional security environment. Continued disarray between the two countries will undermine a coordinated response to North Korea. A single Abe-Moon summit will not resolve the differences between the two countries. Diplomatic efforts must be expedited to bring bilateral ties back to normal.