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[Editorial] Positive turn

Top diplomats’ talks should explore pragmatic solution to Seoul-Tokyo discord

Foreign ministers from South Korea, China and Japan will gather together in Beijing for three days from Tuesday for their first trilateral talks in three years.

As Seoul’s Foreign Ministry stated last week, the upcoming meeting is expected to help strengthen the foundation for institutionalizing and fleshing out the system of cooperation among the northeast Asian powers.

The top diplomats are likely to discuss preparations for a possible summit among leaders of the three countries. The last such trilateral summit was held in Tokyo in May last year.

Enhanced cooperation among South Korea, China and Japan could help them cope with a looming global recession and long-standing threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs.

The three-way gathering of foreign ministers comes when Seoul and Tokyo are locked in a mutually damaging feud over trade and historical issues.

In this regard, attention is being drawn to whether South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, will hold bilateral talks to explore a diplomatic solution to the prolonged conflict between their countries. Diplomatic sources here say consultations are underway to set up bilateral meetings between Kang and Kono as well as between Kang and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Kang and Kono met last time on Aug. 2 on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Bangkok amid a chilled atmosphere ahead of an impending decision by Tokyo to drop South Korea from a list of preferred trading partners. The decision and an earlier measure to impose tighter restrictions on exports of hi-tech materials to South Korea were seen as retaliations against last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court here that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor.

Tokyo has yet to respond positively to a recent conciliatory signal from South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In his speech last week marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japan’s colonial rule, Moon said he would “gladly join hands” with Tokyo if it chose the path of “dialogue and cooperation.”

Responding to Moon’s speech, Kono reiterated Tokyo’s claim that Seoul breached international law by demanding compensation for forced labor victims and called for Moon to exert his leadership to “rectify” the situation. Tokyo has argued that all reparation issues were settled under a 1965 accord that normalized ties with Seoul.

Kono’s remarks prompted Seoul’s Foreign Ministry to note that it is “very regrettable” for an official of a country to demand certain steps by the president of another country in breach of international comity.

At this moment, South Korea and Japan should try to prevent their friction from further flaring up to significantly damage mutual interests in economic and security terms.

It would still be difficult for yet another meeting between the top diplomats of the two countries to make a breakthrough in the prolonged standoff rooted in the unfortunate shared history. But it needs to be set up to help find a clue to steady dialogue and cooperation.

In particular, the outcome of the Kang-Kono talks would affect Seoul’s decision on whether to scrap a military intelligence-sharing accord with Tokyo. If it decides to do so, it should make official its decision by Saturday.

Discarding the accord supported by the US would look unreasonable when North Korea has conducted six tests of short-range ballistic missiles or rocket systems over a span of three weeks until last Friday.

Given the need to maintain a trilateral security cooperation with the US and Japan against Pyongyang’s threat, Seoul will probably find it hard to do away with the pact. Japan still needs to help forge an atmosphere conducive to extending it by responding to South Korea’s renewed hopes of finding a diplomatic solution to the row between the two sides.

Both countries should take simultaneous steps toward decoupling their mutual economic and security interests from discord over historical issues.

It is now necessary for Seoul and Tokyo to reflect on the spirit expressed in the 1998 declaration adopted by late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to build a future-oriented partnership. In the joint declaration, Japan expressed “keen remorse” and apologized for “great damage and pain” that it had imposed on Koreans during the colonial rule, while South Korea pledged efforts to reconcile and cooperate with Japan.

Recalling the sensible document, the two countries should strive to go beyond the current standoff to forge a forward-looking partnership.