During his New Year’s press conference Monday, President Moon Jae-in said his government would seek dialogue with Tokyo to find a solution to the long-standing dispute over Japan’s wartime sexual slavery based on a 2015 agreement reached by the two sides to resolve the issue.
He also called for a diplomatic settlement of another issue stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula -- reparations to those forced to work for Japanese firms.
His remarks came amid mounting concerns that ties between Seoul and Tokyo could sink to new lows as Tokyo is reacting strongly against a recent ruling by a court here that ordered it to compensate South Korean women coerced into sexual servitude for Imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II. Tensions between the two countries were already rising over an ongoing legal process to seize and liquidate South Korea-based assets of Japanese firms to make reparations to forced labor victims.
Moon called the ruling on the sexual slavery issue “a little embarrassing” in what could be seen as reflecting his worry that the court’s decision would complicate efforts to improve bilateral relations.
It should be noted, however, that the Moon government has refrained from taking a practical approach in tackling historical issues with Tokyo.
It has backpedaled on the implementation of the 2015 deal that the Park Geun-hye government concluded with Tokyo to settle the sexual slavery issue on grounds that it failed to properly reflect the victims’ views. It has also remained inactive on resolving the discord over colonial-era forced labor, saying only it should respect the judicial judgment.
Some of Moon’s close associates and lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea were seen as attempting to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment here in a bid to rally supporters ahead of parliamentary elections in 2020.
That said, it is a move in the right direction that Moon and his aides have recently put an emphasis on diplomatic and political solutions to discords over historical issues, which are needed to ensure forward-looking cooperation between the two countries.
During a meeting with outgoing Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Koji Tomita last week, Moon said the two nations must make efforts to continue dialogue despite unresolved issues between them. He described the two nations as the “closest neighbors and most important partners” for achieving peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the world.
New South Korean Ambassador to Tokyo Kang Chang-il, who takes office this week, told reporters Sunday he was committed to exploring “political” solutions to historical conflicts with Japan and fostering a “future-oriented” bilateral relationship.
He said Moon had a “strong will” to improve relations with Japan and was willing to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
But Tokyo seems to be in no mood to respond to Seoul’s overtures in a favorable manner. In a break from diplomatic customs, Suga refused to hold a farewell meeting with outgoing South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo.
Japan argues the sexual slavery issue was settled by the 2015 deal while forced labor and other issues stemming from the colonial rule were resolved by a 1965 treaty to normalize ties between the two countries.
The Moon government’s recent efforts to mend ties with Japan appear mainly motivated by its wish to forge an environment conducive to reengagement with North Korea particularly on the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for later this year.
But the two neighboring countries need a closer cooperation in coping with a wider range of issues.
It has not been helpful for them to let historical animosity hamper joint efforts to pull their economies out of coronavirus-caused difficulties. South Korea and Japan will also have to respond to the incoming US administration’s push for reconciliation between its two key Asian allies in a bid to keep an increasingly assertive China in check and counter mounting nuclear threats from Pyongyang.
Enhanced Seoul-Tokyo ties could also give them more room for maneuvering amid an escalating tension between the US and China.
South Korea and Japan need to take a bolder approach to put their ties back on track. They could put historical issues and all other related matters on the table and agree on a comprehensive solution based on simultaneous actions by both sides.
The key lies in whether political leaders in both nations could be audacious enough to move in the direction of making it happen.