The dire state of relations between Japan and South Korea, deeply poisoned by knotty bilateral issues, is all the more reason for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to find a way out of the impasse.
Refusing to meet the leader of a country until it bends to the will of another is simply narrow-minded. That sort of attitude deserves to be roundly criticized.
No meeting has yet been scheduled between Abe and Moon on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit to be held in Osaka in late June.
There is even talk that Abe intends to decline a meeting with Moon in an unusual diplomatic snub to a government head attending such an international event by the leader of the host nation.
Japan has shown an unwillingness to respond to South Korea’s request for a bilateral summit. One reason for Tokyo’s cool response is the dismal prospect of progress on one of the issues straining the bilateral relationship: compensation for wartime Korean labor.
Last autumn, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans brought to work at Japanese mines, factories and dockyards during World War II in the first of a series of rulings that are at odds with Seoul’s traditional position on the issue. During the half year since then, the Moon administration has kept saying it is considering how to respond to these rulings without announcing any specific measure to deal with the issue.
Rejecting a meeting between Abe and Moon because of this dispute would clash with the government’s traditional policy of trying to cope with intractable issues.
In its past talks with Seoul over bilateral matters, Tokyo argued that history-related disputes that cannot be solved swiftly should be handled separately from other issues.
The Abe administration’s current posturing is strongly reminiscent of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s demand for progress on the issue of “comfort women” as a precondition for holding bilateral summits.
Besides history-related squabbles, Japan and South Korea are locked in disputes over other issues as well.
The Japanese government has tightened screening of seafood imports from South Korea, starting this month. The measure is apparently intended as retaliation against South Korea’s continued ban on imports of Japanese seafood harvested in waters in eastern Japan, including areas affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
This is a delicate issue that concerns food safety, and the only sensible approach is to continue making tenacious efforts to resolve it through talks.
An escalating exchange of tit-for-tat actions could adversely affect the vibrant daily interactions between citizens of the two countries.
The South Korean government, for its part, should stop to reflect on why bilateral ties are in such crisis.
The Moon administration has been pursuing better relations with North Korea as its main foreign policy priority. Some commentators in South Korea contend that the administration has been so preoccupied with this diplomatic goal that it failed to make sufficient efforts to keep the country’s relations with Japan on good terms. They say the Moon administration is now paying the price for its mistake.
The South Korean government should accelerate its efforts to resolve the wartime labor dispute, irrespective of what happens at the G-20 summit.
If Seoul seeks a bilateral summit only to avoid being criticized for a diplomatic fiasco, that would amount to putting the cart before the horse.
There have been some diplomatic contacts between the two countries. The foreign ministers of the two countries met last month, and the two defense ministers met in Singapore on June 1.
Abe has pledged to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions. If he avoids holding talks with Moon, his commitment to diplomatic goals concerning the Korean Peninsula will be called into question.
The leaders of both countries should tackle diplomatic challenges concerning the bilateral relationship from a broad perspective based on a clear vision for the future without being shackled by the need to please their respective domestic support bases.
We hope the two leaders will demonstrate political good sense by leading their countries toward a relationship based on mutual benefits.