In damages suits filed against a Japanese company by former forced laborers and female workers, the South Korean Supreme Court has again ordered the defendant to pay compensation. The court indicated this time, too, that those former workers’ right to seek redress for wartime wrongdoing was not settled by the 1965 Japan-South Korea compensation agreement.
As many as 12 such lawsuits are ongoing in South Korean courts, and additional legal action may emerge. Compensation orders against Japanese companies are expected to continue, and it is feared that the bilateral relationship between Tokyo and Seoul will deteriorate further.
The two governments have been in agreement that the issue of compensating former forced workers was settled with the 1965 agreement. The accord was a foundational agreement for the normalization of bilateral ties, which had hitherto been highly acrimonious due to Japan’s decades of colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Recent legal decisions have upended this premise, and the bilateral situation may worsen to the extent that the two sides cannot find a way out of the current impasse.
Based on past diplomatic documents and other information, the South Korean government has judged that the forced laborers issue is something that it has to handle. But this position was denied by the recent judicial decisions, and coming to terms with those rulings is the responsibility of the South Korean side.
At the same time, emotional tension will only intensify if Japan simply waits for South Korea to come up with a response. We propose Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have a summit meeting to discuss what direction to take. The Group of 20 summit of major economies beginning on Nov. 30 would be a good opportunity for such a meeting. It is expected that a face-to-face session between the two leaders can serve as leverage to cool heated public sentiment in both countries.
Indeed, there is a view that such a meeting cannot produce any tangible results because of domestic opinion in the two countries, and therefore should not be held at this juncture. Yet it is meaningful for the two leaders to show that they are tackling the issue head on, at a time when direct diplomacy between leaders has a growing role to play.
Japan and South Korea need each other to settle problems with North Korea. They cannot ignore each other as trading partners. Efforts must be made to maintain the flow of visitors back and forth across the Sea of Japan, which has reached some 10 million people per year.
As leaders of the international community, Japan and South Korea should not stand idly by as the neighbors’ relationship deteriorates. The two countries need to show they have a mature attitude to discussing tough problems.
The worsening ties have had repercussions not only in the capitals but even in regional communities. The city of Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, has cancelled mutual visits of officials with its South Korean sister city of Gangneung planned for December, after receiving many complaints about South Korea.
The Japanese and South Korean governments should make it a rule for their leaders to sit down and discuss problems, even if they are difficult ones.