President Moon Jae-in may feel that he has adhered to a principled approach to historical issues with Japan. Nevertheless, he may also be realizing that it has come round to undermine his position on the diplomatic stage of Northeast Asia.
If he has an ulterior motive -- if, as critics charge, he intends to use the inflammatory issues to his domestic political advantage -- he stands to pay substantial costs in practical terms.
Since he took office two years ago, the bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has plummeted to its lowest ebb in decades amid rekindled disputes over issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. That friction was complicated by Japan’s allegation in December that a South Korean destroyer had locked its targeting radar on a Japanese surveillance plane.
Moon, a liberal human rights lawyer, has proven more attentive than previous conservative presidents to the suffering of Korean victims of wartime sexual slavery and forced labor during the colonial era. He has gone so far as to link his political opponents with the legacy of Japan’s colonial rule and with the collaborators of that era.
In October, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of forced labor. The top court recognized the victims’ rights to claim damages individually, dismissing Tokyo’s assertion that all reparation issues were settled under a 1965 accord that normalized ties between the two countries. This decision reflects on Moon, who appointed a majority of the court’s 14 judges, including the chief justice.
Later last year, the Moon administration virtually scrapped a 2015 agreement its predecessor had concluded with Tokyo to resolve the issue of wartime sexual slavery, when it decided to dissolve a foundation set up with funding from the Japanese government to support victims.
The possibility that Seoul would experience diplomatic and economic fallout from strained ties with Tokyo seems to have escaped the Moon government, which is preoccupied with improving relations with North Korea. It simply hoped that enhanced inter-Korean relations would bring greater business opportunities and geopolitical stability to the region.
With the process of rapprochement between the two Koreas stalled by Pyongyang’s refusal to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, Seoul now seems to be paying heed to the limits that its frayed ties with Tokyo are placing on its diplomatic and economic prospects.
The dilemma facing Moon is deepening in the run-up to the Group of 20 summit to be hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Osaka in June.
It still remains unclear whether Moon will have a bilateral meeting with Abe on the sidelines of the multilateral gathering. It would embarrass Moon if Abe refused a one-on-one meeting. A failure to make a breakthrough at their talks, however, would further strain the relationship between the two countries.
What also worries observers here is that South Korea’s ties with the US are growing increasingly distant, while Tokyo has consolidated its alliance with Washington.
A US congressional report published last week said collaboration between Washington and Seoul had become “more inconsistent and unpredictable” under the Moon and Trump administrations.
By contrast, Abe and Trump demonstrated good chemistry during the latter’s four-day state visit to Japan this week -- playing golf, watching a sumo tournament and dining at an izakaya restaurant together in between their formal talks.
At a joint press conference with Abe on Monday, Trump said he and the Japanese leader would continue to engage in close consultations in pursuit of peace and stability on the peninsula, saying the US-Japan alliance was “steadfast and ironclad.”
Abe said Trump expressed full support for his desire to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un face-to-face without attaching any conditions, for candid discussions on the issue of Japanese citizens abducted to the North.
If that meeting takes place, Abe could also overshadow Moon as a mediator by taking the initiative and facilitating the stalled negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Partly in response to nudging by the US, Seoul now seems to be attempting to repair its strained ties with Tokyo.
South Korea is ready to hold a meeting of defense chiefs with Japan this weekend on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Singapore, though Tokyo seems reluctant to resume top-level military consultations with Seoul at this stage.
Eventually, whether and how to resolve the issue of compensation for forced laborers will hold the key to restoring cooperative ties between the two countries.
During a meeting in Paris last week with his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called on Moon to “responsibly” address the issue in what was seen here as an undiplomatic application of pressure.
Japan earlier requested the formation of an arbitration panel involving a third-country member to handle the case. Should the panel fail to work out a solution, Japan could bring the case to the International Court of Justice.
Going through this course, though consistent with dispute settlement procedures stipulated in the 1965 accord, could leave a deeper scar on the bilateral relationship.
Consideration needs to be given to working out a diplomatic solution. It might help break the impasse to form a foundation funded by both Japanese and Korean firms and limit reparations strictly to actual victims who present concrete evidence within a certain period of time.
In the longer term, South Korea needs to be more active and forward-looking in pulling its ties with Japan out of the historical trap to maximize the potential of their partnership.
Kim Kyung-ho is an editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.