Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with his South Korean counterpart Lee Nak-yon in Tokyo on Oct. 24. Lee was in Japan to attend the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito held two days earlier. Their talks represented the first top-level meeting between the two countries since the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies in October 2018 to pay compensation to former forced workers during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
At the meeting, the prime ministers agreed on the need to improve bilateral relations and Lee pledged that Seoul would abide by a 1965 bilateral agreement to settle the issue of compensation for wartime labor exploitation and other affairs. We hope that the first top-level dialogue in approximately a year will lead to a progress in bilateral talks.
However, announcements by both sides on their respective positions show that there persists a wide perception gap on the issue.
Prime Minister Lee handed Abe a letter from President Moon Jae-in at the meeting. The letter apparently says that Japan is an important partner for South Korea and calls on Tokyo to make efforts with Seoul to settle outstanding issues at an early date.
At the same time, Prime Minister Abe urged Seoul to create an opportunity for South Korea to restore the soundness of bilateral relations by abiding by promises between the countries. Abe thus emphasized that South Korea, which he claims is responsible for the worsening of bilateral ties, should deal with the matter.
There is growing hope in South Korea that the meeting will serve as an opportunity to improve relations with Japan. To that end, however, Seoul needs to present new measures to deal with the forced labor issue.
There is a possibility that a portion of the assets of Japanese companies that lost the damages suit over the issue will be sold off by the end of this year at the earliest. If that happens, bilateral relations will inevitably worsen to an unprecedented level. Both countries need to avoid such a situation.
According to the Japanese government, Prime Minister Abe repeatedly demanded during the meeting that South Korea rectify violations of international law. This indicates that the Japanese prime minister is of the view that Japan cannot go ahead with improving bilateral ties without clarifying the accords related to the fundamentals of bilateral relations.
However, considering that Prime Minister Lee visited Japan to express congratulations on the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito on behalf of his country, it is regrettable that Japan did not appear enthusiastic about creating a climate for making progress in bilateral issues during the meeting.
The chilling of bilateral relations since last year has affected not only political but also security, economic and private exchanges between the two countries, obviously causing huge loses to both sides.
Both countries have a political responsibility to break the impasse. If the political leaders of Japan and South Korea show a willingness to face each other, it will likely lead to dispelling mutual distrust little by little. The latest prime ministerial talks should stand as the first step toward that move.