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[Editorial] Deep rift

Korea’s bid for Japan summit founders; leaders must keep trying to build trust

President Moon Jae-in’s decision not to visit Japan this week shows again the deep rift in relations between the two countries.

The Moon administration tried to make a breakthrough in the deteriorating Korea-Japan ties by using the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games as an opportunity to hold a bilateral face-to-face summit.

Korea-Japan relations remain at a low under the Moon administration primarily due to frictions over the historical issues of compensating former Korean victims of forced labor and military sexual enslavement during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea from 1910-1945 and Tokyo’s export curbs implemented in 2019. No summit talks have been held between the two countries since Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office in September last year.

In consultations about the summit, Tokyo did not step back from its position that Seoul must first offer solutions to the issues related to the former victims of forced labor and sexual slavery. For the Korean government, this is a tall order.

Japan’s obstinate attitude gave an impression that the country looked away intentionally from the necessity for the two leaders to meet up with each other to resolve pending problems. It also raised suspicions that Tokyo used Seoul’s push for summit as a leverage to gain concession. Despite Japan’s high-handed and insincere attitude toward the summit, Korea tried to keep up negotiations.

To make matters worse, a high-level Japanese diplomat in Korea made obscene comments that disgraced Moon. Nevertheless, the Japanese government neither offered a plain apology nor made a corresponding personnel transfer.

Japan looked as if it would not feel sorry at all even if Moon’s visit goes up in smoke. It is deeply regrettable that the Japanese government showed a stubborn and passive attitude, causing the miscarriage of the summit.

The Korean government needs to take this opportunity to look back on how Korea-Japan relations came to this.

Early in his presidency, Moon broke the agreement on the issue of former Korean victims to Japan’s military sexual slavery, arguing that the accord has a serious flaw. That was the beginning of the breakdown in bilateral relations.

In September 2018, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in favor of former Korean victims of forced labor who sought compensation from Japanese companies, adding fuel to the fire. Nearly three years have since passed, but it is hard to say that Cheong Wa Dae and the Moon government tried their best politically and diplomatically to resolve the conflicts. In response to Japan’s export curbs, which came after the ruling, high-ranking government and ruling party officials instigated anti-Japanese sentiment, mentioning Japan’s past invasions of Korea. Rather than trying to ease conflicts, they stimulated them.

The Tokyo Olympic Games may effectively be the last chance for the Moon administration to try to restore tattered relations. After the Olympics, both countries will have a busy election schedule. Prime Minister Suga faces a leadership election of the Liberal Democratic Party in September. In Korea at that time, both ruling and opposition parties are likely to elect their presidential candidates.

Chances are pretty high that the Korea-Japan relations under the Moon administration will be carried over to the next government. Korea failed to convert a chance into reality, but it must not give up efforts to find a turning point if it wants better relations with Japan. The people and businesses of both countries will only end up getting caught in the crosshairs because of the antagonism toward each other.

It is fortunate that consultations on Moon’s visit to Japan are said to have produced a significant level of mutual understanding on some issues. Korea and Japan must not give up trying to restore mutual trust and improve their relations. Trust cannot be built in a day.

Above all, politicians in both countries must not use Korea-Japan relations to push their political agenda. With a future-oriented attitude, they must keep trying to find a way for their countries to prosper together.

By Korea Herald (