How to mend fencesOn Wednesday, a new era begins in Japan. As 85-year-old Emperor Akihito abdicates due to health concerns, 59-year-old Crown Prince Naruhito will succeed his father, putting an end to Akihito’s 31-year Heisei era. Reiwa is the name of the new emperor’s era.
Despite the beginning of a new era in Japan, Korea-Japan relations are at their worst level because of problems from the past. The former Park Geun-hye administration’s agreement with Tokyo on the sex slave issue, the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling ordering compensation by Japanese companies for Korean workers during World War II and threatening flybys by a Japanese reconnaissance airplane on the East Sea helped exacerbate the conflict. Despite repeated diplomatic disputes in the past, bilateral relations have never been as bad as they are today. The ramifications are already palpable. The Japanese are even boycotting Korean consumer products.
If the current situation continues, it will affect exchanges in the private sector. Moreover, it could hamper bilateral cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, including sanctions on the recalcitrant state. If South Korean authorities decide to liquidate assets seized from Japanese companies and the Japanese government takes retaliatory actions, relations could spin out of control.
Untying this Gordian knot will not be easy. Both sides must address the discord through dialogue. For instance, if authorities or experts can hold meetings to discern the fundamental differences on the court’s judgment, they could see some light at the end of the tunnel. Our government also needs to consider the idea of complying with Article 3 of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which calls for diplomatic consultation when the need arises.
More importantly, the two countries’ leaders must respect each other. The ascension of Naruhito offers a good turning point. As many world leaders will send him congratulatory messages, President Moon Jae-in can also do the same. That may help him hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Summit in June in Osaka, Japan.
If Moon can maintain the momentum, he can expect to recover relations with Japan around the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. His administration helped turn around the tense situation in the Korean Peninsula by adroitly taking advantage of the PyeongChang Winter Games. It can do the same with Japan.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 30, Page 34