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[Editorial] True neighbors

Seoul-Tokyo tension should cool down fast

The death this week of two South Korean victims of Japan’s military sex slavery, including Kim Bok-dong, a prominent activist who led the Korean victims’ campaign against the Tokyo government, is rekindling the public’s attention to the historical issue here.

President Moon Jae-in was one of the first to visit the funeral house and express condolences for Kim. Lines of mourners coming from all walks of life and all over the country represent Koreans’ frustration and anger over Japan’s failure to “acknowledge its misdeed, apologize and make due compensation,” for which Kim dedicated her later life.

The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must not underestimate the Korean sentiment that has gotten worse in the wake of Kim’s death and the recent escalation of a rare military tension between the two countries.

The Abe government seems to have built up the latest tension intentionally. The ongoing military dispute, which is very rare even considering the two countries’ deep-running historical animosity, is one case in point.

The “radar row” started when Japan’s Defense Ministry released video footage and claimed a South Korean naval vessel locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft last month.

The South Korean military denied the lock-on of a tracking radar and accused the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft of intimidating the Korean vessel at a dangerously low altitude.

The two sides have since been engaged in a fervent exchange of accusations, sticking to their respective positions.

But here is one argument few could dispute: Korea and Japan are often swept into antagonisms, especially over historical issues like military sex slavery. But would either side ever think about using military force against the other in peacetime or resorting to military means to settle an issue, pitting themselves against each other?

In the same vein, would the captain of a South Korean warship think about firing a gun or missile at an unarmed patrol plane from Japan? Given the current thaw on the Korean Peninsula, few see a likelihood for hostilities even between the two Koreas.

The fact that the Japanese made three more low-altitude flybys near South Korean naval ships this month makes one suspect the Japanese actions have been premeditated.

The military provocations may well be part of the Abe administration’s efforts to shore up its domestic political standing by taking advantage of anti-Korean sentiment.

Indeed, Abe vehemently criticized the Seoul government over a recent series of historical disputes, including Korean Supreme Court rulings that ordered Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who had been taken to Japan as forced laborers during colonial rule.

Before that, the Abe administration also sharpened its criticism of the Korean government over Moon’s move to revoke a 2015 agreement to settle the sex slavery issue.

Abe used his annual policy address to parliament to demonstrate his attitude toward South Korea. It is true that since he took power in 2012, Abe has downgraded the importance of Japan’s relations with Korea, but it marked the first time he did not mention bilateral relations between the two at all.

In contrast, he emphasized the need to normalize North Korea and lift “to a new level” relations with China. All this can be seen as a warning to the Seoul government that it could be left out.

It is not difficult to see what Abe wanted. He wanted to buttress his popularity (his approval ratings rose to 53 percent after the radar dispute) ahead of the upcoming major elections.

It is sad we witness such a narrow-minded politician leading a neighbor whose policies could have immense impact on this country and the region as a whole.

A bigger cause for concern is that Abe’s apparent South Korea-bashing comes at a time when the three-way alliance involving the US is essential for denuclearizing North Korea.

It will not be possible to settle all the issues pending between the two countries in a short period of time, but escalation of tensions, especially between the militaries, must be avoided by all means.

The two sides need dialogue. A “two-plus-two meeting between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers could help them cool current tensions. The two sides may as well start discussions to set up such high-level talks.