[Editorial] Normalize Korea-Japan relations before it’s too late

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[Editorial] Normalize Korea-Japan relations before it’s too late

Korea and Japan are accelerating an effort to resolve the wartime forced labor compensation issue, one of the biggest obstacles in normalizing their icy relations. Since the Yoon Suk Yeol administration first extended its hands to Japan for dialogue, Tokyo seems to welcome it after maintaining cold attitude during Moon Jae-in’s five-year presidency. As both governments are aggressively tackling the challenge, they must put the frozen bilateral relations back on track as soon as possible.

On Monday, senior diplomats from the two countries discussed possible solutions to the tricky issue at a meeting in Tokyo. In that meeting, Seo Min-jung, director general for Asia and Pacific affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained to her Japanese counterpart about a convincing solution presented in a public debate in Seoul last Thursday. The solution is primarily based on compensation by a foundation for wartime laborers first on behalf of Japanese companies, which will be reimbursed by Korean companies which had benefited from the package deal in 1965 between Seoul and Tokyo. Based on the novel compensation by “a third-party,” the Korean government reportedly urged Tokyo to take a corresponding step in a sincere manner.

After Seoul announces a final solution next month after fixing it, Tokyo is expected to announce forward-looking measures such as collecting donations from Japanese companies doing business in Korea. After Tokyo lifts export restrictions on Korea soon, the two countries will most likely restore their shuttle diplomacy, too.

Optimism can be felt by recent remarks by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who raised the possibility of meeting with President Yoon over the thorny issue. Diplomats in Seoul said that President Yoon may visit Tokyo by the end of February followed by Kishida’s invitation of Yoon to the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May. Those are certainly good signs for a successful settlement of the wartime forced labor issue.

The issue has gone beyond the level of the bilateral relations. After a summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington last Friday, Kishida reiterated an intention to address pending issues between Seoul and Tokyo. Diplomatic circles linked it to Biden’s apparent request for a successful resolution of the problem given the need for joint security cooperation among the three countries to check China.

No matter how urgent the settlement of the issue, our government must not rush. It must first persuade surviving victims about the solution until the last minute while encouraging Japan to do its share, including issuing a sincere apology. Both governments must do their best to jointly deal with the North Korean nuclear threats.
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