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[Editorial] Abrupt about-face

Moon’s reconciliatory gesture toward Tokyo comes with illusory approach to Pyongyang

In a move to perplex his supporters and critics alike, President Moon Jae-in has recently made an abrupt about-face in his stance on South Korea’s strained ties with Japan.

He said Monday that his government was ready to talk with Tokyo on enhancing cooperation between the two neighboring countries, separating efforts toward forging a future-oriented partnership from longstanding disputes over shared history.

“I am confident that if we put our heads together in the spirit of trying to understand each other’s perspectives, we will also be able to wisely resolve issues of the past,” he said in an address during a ceremony commemorating the 102nd anniversary of the 1919 public uprising here against Japan’s colonial rule.

His reconciliatory tone was in sharp contrast to his previous speeches marking the March 1 Independence Movement Day, which focused on demanding Tokyo’s apology for colonial-era atrocities and liquidating what he described as pro-Japanese legacies. Moon signaled a shift in his position in a news conference at the outset of the year by suggesting that his government would be more flexible in handling pending issues with Tokyo.

Since Moon took office in May 2017, Seoul and Tokyo have seen bilateral ties sink to one of their lowest ebbs over issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula, which have spilled over into the economic and military realms.

The Moon administration was criticized for negligence in finding diplomatic solutions to historical disputes with Tokyo, allowing them to be complicated by court rulings here.

In January, a local court ordered the Japanese government to compensate South Korean women coerced into sexual servitude for imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II. A separate legal process has been underway to seize and liquidate South Korea-based assets of Japanese firms to make reparations to those forced to work for them under the colonial rule.

Tokyo has argued that all reparations issues arising from its colonization of the peninsula were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two nations.

The Moon administration has maintained that it could do little with regard to judicial judgments on the cases of sexual enslavement and forced labor. Shortly after assuming office, it backpedaled on the implementation of a 2015 deal that the government of Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, concluded with Tokyo to settle the sexual slavery issue on the ground that it failed to properly reflect the victims’ views. Some of Moon’s associates and ruling party lawmakers appeared to attempt to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment in a bid to rally voters ahead of last April’s legislative elections.

Moon has given no specific explanation on why he made an abrupt change in his approach to frayed ties with Japan, despite Tokyo’s adherence to its position. So far, the Japanese government has made no response to Moon’s reconciliatory speech.

This situation has caused criticism here that the Moon administration has eroded Seoul’s diplomatic ground by attempting to use historical discords with Tokyo to domestic political advantages. Advocates for a firm stance against what they view as Japan’s unrepentant attitude appear embarrassed by Moon’s sudden about-face.

Moon’s departure from his previous inflexible position seems to have been prompted partly by increasing calls from US President Joe Biden’s administration for improved ties between Seoul and Tokyo, which are essential to its push to strengthen trilateral cooperation with them. In his address Monday, Moon noted bilateral cooperation between South Korea and Japan would not only benefit the two countries but also facilitate their trilateral partnership with the US.

Moon may also have worried prolonged tensions between South Korea and Japan could hamper Seoul’s efforts for smooth consultations with the Biden administration in pushing for his peace agenda for the peninsula.

A more immediate motivation for the shift in Moon’s stance seems to be his wish to use the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer as a stage for the resumption of engagement with North Korea.

In Monday’s speech, Moon said South Korea would cooperate for the success of the event, pointing out that it could offer a chance for dialogue among the two Koreas, the US and Japan. But his suggestion might prove to be yet another example of his illusory approach to the North, with Washington and Tokyo ready to keep pressure on Pyongyang until the recalcitrant regime discards its nuclear arsenal.