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[Editorial] Messenger’s role

PM Lee’s visit to Tokyo should set the stage for South Korea-Japan summit

The momentum for easing the strained ties between South Korea and Japan is building ahead of Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s planned trip to Tokyo this week.

During his three-day visit starting Tuesday, Lee is scheduled to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after attending Japanese Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony. It will be the first high-level meeting in more than a year between the two neighboring nations that are embroiled in a long-running feud that has spread from historical discord to diplomatic, trade and security ties.

In an interview with a Japanese daily last week, Lee said President Moon Jae-in believes the wartime forced labor issue should not stand in the way of promoting future-oriented relations between South Korea and Japan. Lee is expected to deliver a letter from Moon to Abe, which is expected to express a commitment to improving the frayed bilateral ties.

In October last year, Seoul’s top court made a ruling ordering Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.

In an apparent retaliation for the ruling, which contradicts Tokyo’s position that all reparation issues with Seoul were settled by a 1965 pact that normalized bilateral ties, Abe’s administration in July imposed curbs on exports of key industrial materials to South Korea. Tokyo went further and dropped Seoul from its white list of preferred trade partners.

Seoul countered Tokyo’s moves by removing Japan from its own white list and decided not to extend a bilateral military information-sharing agreement that is set to expire in late November.

In a separate interview with a Japanese news agency last week, Lee suggested Seoul could reconsider its decision regarding the accord if Tokyo withdrew the export restrictions.

Days before Lee’s interviews with Japanese news outlets, Abe said in a parliamentary session that it was necessary to maintain dialogue with South Korea, which he described as an “important neighboring country.”

Given the difference in the positions of Seoul and Tokyo over the forced labor issue, it would be too much to expect Lee’s visit to make tangible accomplishments in improving soured relations. But it could, and should, serve as an occasion to set the stage for a summit between Moon and Abe, who last met in September last year. Lee himself last week expressed hopes of playing a “messenger role” between the two leaders.

Moon and Abe need to meet soon to affirm their will to settle disputes between the two countries, giving impetus to working-level efforts to find diplomatic solutions. Their meeting may be set up on the sidelines of some of the regional summit talks set to be held in the coming months, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference hosted by Chile in mid-November.

Seoul and Tokyo have held each other responsible for the worsening bilateral ties. But both sides have little time to avoid their ongoing disputes causing more severe consequences.

The prolonged trade restrictions against each other would inflict increasing damages on not only the economies of the two countries but also the global supply chains in high-tech sectors.

The expiration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, signed in 2016 under the auspices of the US, would weaken the trilateral security cooperation among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington against persistent nuclear and ballistic missile threats from North Korea.

President Moon’s administration appears to be worried that the termination of the accord would irk Washington, which has repeatedly called on Seoul to reconsider the decision urgently. Such concern may be the main factor behind Seoul’s active stance on mending its frayed ties with Tokyo.

But Abe’s government has so far shown no signs of accepting Seoul’s proposal to extend the GSOMIA in return for Tokyo’s withdrawal of export curbs. It is expected to withdraw retaliatory measures only when the forced labor issue is settled in the direction of suiting its position.

Given the sensitivity of the issue, the South Korean court is advised to consider further delaying legal steps to liquidate assets here of Japanese firms that have refused to comply with the order to compensate forced labor victims. For its part, Tokyo needs to reconsider its objection to Seoul’s suggestion that companies from both nations raise a joint fund for the compensation scheme. The South Korean government could contribute to the fund if the measure helps reach a compromise with Japan.

As some observers note, the Moon administration could use what it sees as Tokyo’s intransigent stance to deflect or alleviate Washington’s anger at the eventual termination of the military information-sharing accord.