South Korean President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly called for “future-oriented relations” with Japan.
We understand that his words were based on the belief that although the past cannot be forgotten, politicians must not be so obsessed with history that it undermines the interests of the people in the present and the future.
The bilateral relationship is becoming increasingly strained over the issue of Korean laborers brought to Japan during World War II.
There is no question that history issues are tough, complex challenges that must be handled with utmost care by both parties.
Still, the onus is on South Korea to make an imminent move, given the growing likelihood that a South Korean court will order the sales of Japanese companies’ assets to pay compensation to wartime Korean laborers.
The South Korean government must make a decision to break the current impasse, and we are counting on President Moon’s wisdom.
Last October, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered a Japanese company to pay compensation to wartime laborers. The Japanese government argued that a 1965 bilateral agreement already settled all property and compensation claims stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
Past South Korean administrations have accepted that view, but the Moon government has deferred its judgment since last year, saying the matter was “under consideration.”
The Japanese government has asked the South Korean side to establish an arbitration committee based on the 1965 agreement. The committee would consist of three members–one each from Japan, South Korea and a third-party nation.
Such a request for an arbitration committee has never been made before.
South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon noted this month to the effect that there are limits to what the South Korean government can do on its own. His passive stance apparently reflects the government’s desire to evade the issue out of concern for public opinion at home.
But further procrastination entails risks.
South Korean lawyers representing the former laborers have started processes to cash the stocks of the Japanese companies in question. If any actual damage is done, the Japanese government will resort to retaliatory measures, which will hurt both nations economically.
A fruitless game of revenge will only leave a deep emotional rift among the people of both countries. To avert such a vicious cycle, we hope Seoul will seek a solution within the framework of the 1965 agreement, which has formed the foundation of Japan-South Korea relations.
Tokyo, on its part, definitely needs to face history squarely and strive to act with objectivity.
The 1965 agreement does provide for the establishment of an arbitration committee. Still, neither Japan nor South Korea had sought a committee out of consideration for the emotionally sensitive nature of their history.
The committee will not be set up without South Korea’s agreement, in which case Japan says it will consider taking the case to the International Court of Justice. But that, too, will go nowhere unless South Korea complies.
A dispute between neighbors, despite all the negotiations and mediations that may be involved, can only be solved through dialogue between the parties themselves.
Japan and South Korea must recall how their relations, normalized more than half a century ago, have managed to survive to this day because of the efforts of their successive administrations to keep up dialogue and overcome problems.