[Column] Haste can make waste

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[Column] Haste can make waste

Kim Hyun-ki

The author is the Tokyo bureau chief and rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Shotaro Yachi, head of the secretariat for the Japanese National Security Council, ducked low as soon as he got into a car waiting for him in fear of being detected by reporters as he got off the plane at Incheon International Airport, the gateway to Seoul. He was accompanied by Takehiro Funakoshi, director-general for Asian and Oceanian Affairs in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, currently handling negotiations on compensating Korean victims of wartime forced labor. They arrived at a nearby hotel, where their South Korean counterparts were waiting.

At the time, the Korean delegation was led by Lee Byung-ki, chief of staff to president Park Geun-hye. Lee and Yachi discreetly met eight times in 2015 for the inter-government agreement on compensating Korean victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. On the surface, their formal negotiating channel was between the Asian affairs directors-general of the two country’s foreign ministries.

But it was up to Lee and Yachi to remove the stumbling block whenever negotiations were deadlocked. Japan first offered the donation of 470 million yen ($3.7 million). In reaction, Lee said the amount would look “shabby” and offered to sell his house if it can help Japan raise the sum. In the end, Tokyo doubled the fund to 1 billion yen. The two top officials exchanged harsh words until the last moment before Korea agreed to remove the “Statute of Peace” symbolizing a girl victimized for sexual slavery sitting across the Japanese embassy in Seoul. But the two eventually came to a deal and did not reverse it. The two officials had full authority from their leaders and kept them informed during the progress.

The ongoing negotiations over the wartime forced labor compensation have some common features and differences from the talks over sex slaves in 2015. What is the same is that Seoul is the hurrying side. The president in Seoul is more eager than his counterpart in Tokyo. Just as Park wanted the compensation for the sex slaves to be wrapped up within the year marking the 50th year of the diplomatic normalization in 1965, Yoon is also in a haste. The rushing side can be easily read by the opponent. It is a pity that Seoul is making the same mistake.

The difference is a critical lack of political influence. During the talks on compensation for former sex slaves, politicking played a pivotal role. As a result, the Korean side got much of what it had asked for — admission from Tokyo, apology from the Japanese prime minister, and compensation from Japan’s government coffers. But politics are absent in the current negotiation over wartime forced labor.

The onus falls on the bureaucrats. At this round, there are no major bargainers like Lee and Yachi. Foreign ministry officials of the two countries wrangle over every wording to avoid accountability after bad memories from the nullification of the comfort women compensation deal. Key officials from the Japanese foreign ministry are mostly from the most scrupulous Bureau of Treaty. They do not relay the urgency of a settlement to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Persuade the prime minister on the need for a settlement pertains to the realm of politics.

Seoul has painstakingly come up with a complicated idea of having Korean enterprises — which benefited from the 1965 normalization treaty that paid Korea $500 million in remuneration for its claims — donate to a fund to pay the victims first on behalf of the Japanese companies being sued. The challenging work is to fill the framework.
A progressive civic group and lawmakers from the Democratic Party oppose the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s “humiliating approach” to address the wartime forced labor compensation issue in front of the National Assembly building, Jan. 12. [KIM SEONG-RYONG]

Support from influential Japanese politicians and Washington could be helpful. But it’s up to Koreans politicians. The president must meet the Japanese prime minister in person and talk on phone to make a deal or send envoys to close one. Seoul must argue that it had taken a highly controversial action that goes against the 2018 Supreme Court ruling and the 1965 normalization treaty, and demand Tokyo take an equally bold step for reconciliation.

Our government must ensure that Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel contribute regardless of the amount and have those companies or the Japanese government apologize to the victims. The tough grounds would certainly force the Japanese leadership to move towards at least for a compromise.

If the leader and politics do not make such efforts, they cannot convince the victims and the Korean companies forced to pay the damages, not to mention the general public. Seoul may hope for a deal before Yoon’s visit to Tokyo probably in February.

But haste makes waste.
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