Put the relations back on track

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Put the relations back on track

Foreign Minister Park Jin met Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Monday in Tokyo. That’s the first contact between the two countries’ foreign ministers since former foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha met with her Japanese counterpart in December 2017. The long hiatus represents deep schisms between Seoul and Tokyo over the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling for compensation by Japanese companies for wartime force labor, the following export restrictions by Japan and the subsequent scrapping of the General Status of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) by the Korean government.

In Monday’s meeting, the two foreign ministers agreed to make effort to address the issue related to the Korean court’s order to liquidate accused Japanese company assets in Korea to pay for the forced labor during World War II. The meeting, albeit belated, carries great significance as it reflects the two countries’ recognition of the urgent need to reinforce the Seoul-Tokyo and Seoul-Washington-Tokyo cooperation when a new international order is being shaped amid tense confrontation between America and China.

But we have a long way to go. Resolving the forced labor issue requires diplomatic negotiation, but it also calls for a bipartisan consensus domestically. We can learn lessons from the lead-up to the nullification of the 2015 agreement on compensation for former sex slaves. Though the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is currently considering the option of preparing the fund for compensation on its own, it requires an agreement by former forced laborers who won a legal battle in Korea.

The Yoon administration began to canvass public opinion after forming a joint civilian-government consultative body, including litigation representatives. But refusal by some of the representatives to participate in the settlement process sounded alarms. The government must persuade hard-line civic groups and opposition parties and find irreversible solutions even if a governing power changes.

To reach a satisfactory solution, Tokyo must demonstrate a genuine willingness to solve the conundrum. If it sticks with its earlier demand that Korea first come up with a solution as its court handed down a ruling against the international law, the problem cannot be solved. If the Yoon administration tries to find a solution hurriedly, it will backfire certainly. And yet, given the court’s liquidation procedure, not much time is left. We hope the government proves its political and diplomatic capabilities to normalize relations before it is too late.
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