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[Editorial] Acid test of diplomacy

Ruling on forced laborers to chill ties with Tokyo; more communication needed

It is inevitable that Korea-Japan relations will be impacted by the Supreme Court’s ruling that Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. should compensate four South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.

Though the ruling came late -- 13 years and eight months after the suit was first filed -- we hope that it will ease the lifelong rancor of wartime forced laborers and their surviving families.

The government must try its best to heal their wounds.

The ruling is noteworthy in that Korea’s top court has not acknowledged Japan’s earlier court ruling that Korean forced laborers had no right to demand personal compensation.

It is significant that the Supreme Court has made it clear that the right to demand personal compensation is not covered by a 1965 Seoul-Tokyo treaty that was accompanied by Japanese payments to restore diplomatic ties.

The ruling is restricted to four Koreans, but considering it was made by the Supreme Court, similar decisions are expected to be made on 12 similar pending cases in Korean courts. The ruling has opened the door for compensation suits by other victims who have not taken judicial procedures so far.

Surviving forced laborers or bereaved families of forced laborers who died will be able to demand the Korean court order the seizure of related Japanese firms’ assets in Korea. The Korean government estimates the number of forced laborers at 216,000, including those missing, and about 3,500 of them are alive.

Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and other Japanese companies involved in similar suits refuse to compensate on the grounds of the Japanese court decision. Even if defendants win suits in Korea, it is unclear if they will actually be compensated by the Japanese companies.

The problem is how to resolve the ruling’s impact on Korea-Japan relations, because Japan is strongly protesting it. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described the ruling as “impossible in light of international law” and vowed to respond “resolutely” to it. He said the ruling violated the 1965 treaty.

It seems nonsensical for the Korean government to take the top court’s ruling as a starting point to demand anew an all-over compensation for the 35-year colonial occupation.

Already chilly ties between Seoul and Tokyo will get worse. The two countries have conducted a war of nerves over historical issues, such as women taken as sex slaves for Japanese troops, Tokyo’s claims to Korea’s Dokdo islets, and Japan’s use of the Rising Sun flag, which is seen as a symbol of its imperial and colonialist past.

If Seoul-Tokyo ties break down in a situation where Seoul and Washington show delicate differences over Seoul-Pyongyang ties, efforts to denuclearize North Korea will be inevitably undermined.

Economic aspects must also be taken into account. Japan is Korea’s fifth-largest trading partner, and Korea depends heavily on Japanese industrial parts.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of forced laborers would not be enough on its own to resolve national resentment over Japan’s colonial exploitation of Korea. But the stark reality facing Korea and Japan requires their close cooperation. The Korean government’s diplomacy has been put to the test.

Still, the government is not in a positon to go against the judicial ruling. It has limited room for diplomatic maneuvers.

The government should respect the top court’s decision, but on the other hand, it must figure out ways to build trust between Seoul and Tokyo.

One way to do so would be for the leaders of Korea and Japan to sit across from each other and talk frankly about the future of their countries. Both sides will have to communicate more often to resolve issues through dialogue.

The Korean government must also work out follow-up measures for forced laborers to get effective compensation.

It is also important for Japan to show changes in its attitude toward history. Tokyo must not hesitate to acknowledge the historical facts that it had forced many people to work. It needs to refrain from responding emotionally and take bold steps to move beyond history toward the future.