South Korea and Japan have been moving to ease their strained ties since Seoul conditionally suspended the expiry of a military information-sharing accord with Tokyo last month.
Senior trade officials from the two sides are scheduled to meet in Tokyo in mid-December to discuss withdrawing Japan’s export curbs on Korea.
In July, Japan imposed restrictions on the shipment of key industrial materials to Korea in apparent reprisal for last year’s ruling by the top court here ordering Japanese firms to compensate Koreans forced to work for them during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula. Tokyo has claimed all reparation issues stemming from the colonial rule were settled by a 1965 agreement that normalized bilateral relations with Seoul.
Tokyo agreed to resume the talks on its export restrictions in exchange for Seoul’s decision to put off the effectuation of its earlier notice of terminating the intelligence-sharing pact.
A day after Seoul announced the decision, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi agreed to coordinate efforts to set up a summit between the leaders of both nations later this month.
There is the possibility that President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold their first formal meeting in more than a year on the margins of their planned trilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Cheongdu, China, on Dec. 24-25.
Progress toward resolving the forced labor issue could hold the key to enabling the Moon-Abe summit.
It is not guaranteed that Tokyo will agree to retract its export curbs at the upcoming negotiations as long as the issue remains unsettled.
If the Abe administration drags its feet on withdrawing the export restrictions, Seoul would find it difficult to move again to terminate the intelligence-sharing accord at the risk of angering the US.
Seoul’s decision to suspend the expiry of the pact with Tokyo came under extraordinary pressure from Washington to retain it. The US sees the accord signed in 2016 under its auspices as a key tool of its trilateral security cooperation with its major Asian allies and a crucial component of its Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China’s rising power in the region.
Without a breakthrough in resolving the forced labor issue, it would be practically impossible to put the frayed Seoul-Tokyo ties back on track.
Japan rejected a proposal by Korea in June to establish a joint compensation fund with contributions from companies in both countries.
What is now emerging as a possible solution is a recent suggestion by Korea’s National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang. During his visit to Tokyo earlier this month, he suggested that ordinary citizens in the two nations be invited to contribute to the envisioned fund.
Tokyo has not shown ostensible objections to his proposal, which it may regard as not contradictory to its position that Japanese firms have no legal responsibility to compensate forced labor victims. A Japanese lawmaker recently called on him to convey the Abe government’s intent to take into account his suggestion.
The speaker and a dozen other legislators from the ruling and opposition parties here are preparing to put forward a bill to enact his proposal into law. Details of the bill are still subject to change as it should take into consideration various opinions. But it needs to be drawn up in a couple of weeks to help forge the atmosphere favorable for setting up the summit of leaders of the two nations.
Forced labor victims and advocacy groups supporting them remain negative toward the proposed legislation, insisting it would exempt the Japanese government and companies from the responsibility they should assume.
A survey of about 9,500 adult Koreans conducted earlier this month showed 44.4 percent opposing the speaker’s proposal as an appropriate solution to the forced labor issue, compared with 32.6 percent in favor of it.
Out of concerns over the negative sentiment, government officials say they will make public their view on the proposal after it is enacted into law.
But the Moon administration needs to depart from its ambiguous attitude and should be more active in helping persuade the public as well as forced labor victims to accept the idea.
When announcing its decision to delay the expiry of the intelligence-sharing accord, Seoul affirmed its two-track approach of seeking to bolster a forward-looking partnership with Tokyo while separately handling issues concerning history. It should now turn its repeated rhetoric into action to solve the thorniest matter that has blocked Seoul and Tokyo from going forward to build cooperative ties.