Why Tokyo blames Seoul
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The mood in Japan was icy. Everyone I met asked why Korea does not keep a promise made to another country. Although we were the victims of sex slavery and forced labor, we suddenly were treated like an offender or aggressor. This was an unacceptable turnaround of the situation.
Last week, five senior lawmakers from Korea’s opposition parties led by Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, visited Japan. The only lawmaker from Japan who agreed to meet them was Miki Watanabe, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense at the House of Councilors. He won’t run in July elections. This shows how hard Japanese politicians are trying to avoid being associated with Korea.
The crisis was prompted by Korea. After the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on Oct. 30 last year that Japanese companies must compensate victims of wartime forced labor, Japan was shocked. Tokyo said the 1965 Agreement between Japan and Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation resolved the issues of compensating individuals once and for all. Tokyo proposed a bilateral consultation in January and an arbitration meeting in May, but Seoul refused both requests.
Korea has no action plan, claiming that “it goes against the separation of powers if an administration intervenes in a judicial process.” Japan is mortified by Korea’s action. Though the Group of 20 summit takes place in Osaka, Japan, later this month, Japan is cynical toward Korean President Moon Jae-in’s hope for a bilateral summit.
Last week in Tokyo, I met a Japanese elder statesman who maintained a long friendship with Korea. He said he’d had dinner the previous day with about 10 Japanese businessmen and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. “If someone talks about Korea, they are asked, ‘Are you a fool?’” he said. “Many people used to say Korea is important, but all of them have disappeared. Because Korea is leaning toward China — as it has been in centuries past — they said there is nothing Japan can do if Korea becomes a part of China again. The mood is that Japan should treat Korea as if it does not exist.” He sighed, “Moon still has three years left in his presidency.”
His concerns were serious. He said that Korea and Japan should work together to confront China but they are not cooperating. “In 10 to 20 years, China’s economic power will be five times stronger than that of Japan, so it won’t listen to what Japan says,” he said. “Of course, it won’t pay heed to what Korea says. Korea and Japan must cooperate, and the United States must support the two countries to deal with China.”
He also spoke candidly about Japan’s intentions on the Korean Peninsula issue. “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wants to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without any preconditions. His decision to not make the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens a precondition of the summit reflects Japan’s intention to redefine its relations with North Korea,” he said. “U.S. President Donald Trump told Abe that he can do what he wants to. When Tokyo-Seoul relations were good, we wanted to resolve the abduction issue through Seoul. But this formula is about to change now.”
The Japanese elder statesman said he advised Abe during a round of golf in 2013 that Japan must value Korea. What was Abe’s reaction at the time? “I actually trust China more. Once China makes an agreement, it respects it,” he quoted Abe as saying. “The people who played golf together at the time told me later that Abe was right, pointing to the latest development in Korea-Japan relations.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling was a serious glitch in Korea-Japan ties. It reversed the conclusion made by a joint committee of the government and civic groups in 2005 during the Roh Moo-hyun presidency. At the time, the committee concluded that the 1965 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo closed the issue on forced labor compensation. Lee Hae-chan — the current chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, who was prime minister at the time — was head of the committee. President Moon Jae-in, who was the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs at the time, was the government representative on the committee. With the recent reversal of its conclusion, Japan turned into a victim and Korea an offender.
As the Supreme Court’s ruling is irreversible, Moon must do his best to resolve this conundrum. It is a good sign that he appointed Cho Sei-young, a Japan expert, as first deputy minister of foreign affairs. It is also hopeful that Moon appointed Nam Gwan-pyo, the second deputy director of the National Security Office at the Blue House, ambassador to Japan. Ambassador Nam said he is meeting senior Japanese officials to convince them that Korea is looking for a resolution, and that they need to wait and see.
Before it is too late, Seoul must send a signal to Tokyo that it will actively address the diplomatic friction. A civilian-government committee, supposed to be chaired by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, should be set up and operated. A presidential committee can also be established with civilian experts recommended by both the ruling and opposition parties. Japanese officials stressed that a forward-looking attitude — no matter how small a step — will help change Japan.
Tokyo must also understand the Korean government’s difficulty in this situation. Of the 15 judges of the highest court of Japan, one is a former official of the Foreign Ministry. In the United States, the federal Supreme Court has the Amicus Curiae system, in which the court will hear the State Department’s opinion on a diplomatic case. But Korea is different. The administration is barred from interfering in the judgment of a court. That is why the government needs wisdom.
The Moon administration must come up with a wise plan to respect the top court’s decision and at the same time heal the wounds of the victims and minimize the diplomatic fallout. Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Japan’s Foreign Ministry, said he meets with Prime Minister Abe two or three times a week. Korea needs a different approach. It must exert all efforts to remove the risk to national security and the economy.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 3, Page 31