Time to start talkingThe Seoul Central District Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the bereaved families of Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor during World War II against 16 Japanese companies. The court on Monday ruled that Korea is subject to the 1965 claims settlement agreement between the two countries. The court said that though individuals’ rights to claim damages were not terminated, exercising the rights through litigation is restricted. That’s the opposite of the 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court in a separate suit, which ordered Japanese companies in Korea to compensate surviving victims for their labor. After Japan strongly opposed the court’s ruling citing Korea’s violation of the 1965 settlement agreement, Seoul-Tokyo relations hit rock bottom, where they remain.
With the two divergent court rulings, a legal battle over wartime forced labor will certainly be prolonged. No one knows how long it will take until the latest ruling will be upheld or dismissed by the top court in Korea. But we cannot wait for a final ruling indefinitely, as we cannot leave the diplomatic schism unattended any longer.
After the court’s ruling for compensation in 2018, the Moon Jae-in administration said it could not but respect the decision. With the reversed ruling this time, the government cannot show the same reaction as in 2018. The time has come for South Korea to settle the dispute through diplomacy. If the Moon administration had approached the issue actively before or after the 2018 court ruling, it could have prevented unnecessary diplomatic friction with Japan. We hope the government finds an effective solution both sides can accept.
Japan also must accept Korea’s call for diplomatic consultations instead of demanding a definite end to Korea’s violation of international laws. In the beginning, Seoul showed a passive reaction to Tokyo’s demand for consultations in consideration of the separation of powers, but the Japanese government has been refusing dialogue with the Moon administration for a while. Simply expressing the hope for building a so-called future-oriented bilateral relationship in the absence of available diplomatic channels is nothing but a pipe dream.
Fortunately, President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga plan to attend the G7 Summit in London from Friday through Sunday. The two leaders have not had a face-to-face meeting since Suga took office in September last year. Japanese media reported that they will have a short conversation — more of a greeting — instead of an official summit on the sidelines of the summit.
The two countries share many tough challenges such as North Korea’s uninterrupted pursuit of advanced nuclear weapons and the never-ending Sino-U.S. contest, not to mention their protracted disputes over history. A lack of summit meetings certainly benefits no one. President Moon and the foreign ministry must do their best to hold a bilateral summit in London to help clear all the obstacles between the two countries.