[Column] The game has just started

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[Column] The game has just started

Choi Hoon
The author is the chief editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

There is a saying among Korean diplomats that a negotiation between South Korea and Japan always turns into a debt, not an asset. The best possible result Seoul can reap is the principle. But most times, the dues can be harsh.

What the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration has proposed to resolve the impasse over Japan’s wartime forced labor — or compensating surviving victims through a Korea-led fund — drew a cold response. A poll by the Maeil Business Newspaper showed 57.9 percent of the respondents disapproving of the solution versus 37.8 percent approval (Yet a majority 67 percent saw the need to improve ties with Japan while 37.3 percent did not).

In a survey conducted shortly after the conservative Park Geun-hye administration’s deal in 2015 with Tokyo over the wartime military slavery, 56 percent opposed the compensation by Japan’s donations while only 26 percent endorsed it. That shows how difficult it is to cut the Gordian knot.

After Japan did not budge from its earlier stance that wartime reparation is a done deal, Washington got actively involved eight years ago, sometimes mounting pressure on Tokyo. But this time, the U.S. stayed on the sidelines, according to Seoul negotiators. Toshimitsu Motegi — the hard-line secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan and a strong candidate to succeed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — reportedly insisted on standing tough on the issue. Kishida could not brush off the tough stance of the mainstream faction still loyal to the late prime minister Shinzo Abe.

The Japanese negotiators stayed cynical throughout the negotiation. “If the Democratic Party comes into power in Seoul, any agreement with us will be reversed,” they said. Tokyo remains bitter over the nullification of the comfort women settlement it reached with the Park Geun-hye administration by the following liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

Still, President Yoon chose to take risks. The issue could turn more sensitive with fewer than 13 months left before the parliamentary elections next year. For President Yoon, it could be better to talk with Kishida, a more centrist leader, than with Motegi, a hard-liner. Yoon, a former prosecutor general, reportedly pointed out that the compensation issue should be resolved through a legal approach as it was triggered by the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling in support of the plaintiffs’ claims against Japanese companies who forced them to work for them during World War II. “We must first settle legal issues and move on to improve our relations with Japan,” said Yoon .

As the head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office in 2018, Yoon endorsed the raid of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the allegation that the court attempted a deal-making over the wartime forced labor issue. At that time, Yoon read thorough the ministry’s documents and other records on forced labor, according to an official from the presidential office in Yongsan. As a result, the president is knowledgeable about the issue.

It all started from a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2012 by Justice Kim Neung-hwan, who overturned the lower court ruling and found Japanese companies liable for forcing the plaintiffs to work for them on exploitive terms and demanded them to pay overdue payments, regardless of the 1965 Korea-Japan Basic Treaty that normalized diplomatic relations with Japan’s grants and special loans to Korea on the premise that the agreement would end all types of war claims from Korea.

As a prosecutor general, Yoon asked another justice on the bench on what grounds the ruling had come about. The Justice reportedly said that the bench went along with Kim’s ruling out of respect that it was the last ruling before his retirement. If true, a serious bias may have been behind the ruling.

The semiconductor situation also could have affected Yoon’s push to resolve the issue. A senior government official said the U.S. is moving towards pulling Japan and the Netherlands as key partners to its campaign to restore its chip manufacturing leverage. Korean chipmakers insisted that it was imperative to bolster cooperation with Japan in chip equipment, materials and parts. Seoul must compromise in order to join the global value chain realigned among free democracies.

President Yoon made the last push. Seoul would have to take the initiative to urgently solve the legal hurdle, a move that will certainly invite an emotional and political backlash. But he assured his negotiators that he was confident to make amends by improving ties for security and economic cooperation through trade, investment and technologies, as well as cultural and youth exchanges. “I will take full responsibility,” Yoon told his negotiating team.

The mood in Japan is also changing. Former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga — the Japanese side chair of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union — was recently replaced by former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of President Yoon’s visit to Japan. Mainstream Japanese media have turned more friendly towards Korea. “The two countries must solve one problem after another through open-mindedness and far-sightedness,” said the Yomiuri Shimbun. The Nikkei called Tokyo to remove the export curbs in response to Seoul’s actions on the wartime labor issue. The Asahi Shimbun went so far as to predict that the negative response in Seoul over a third-party fund will ease if Japanese companies join the contribution. The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea was among the first to declare to donate to the fund.

What remains uncertain is Tokyo’s stance on past issues. Koreans were most appeased by the rhetoric by former prime minister Naoto Kan from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), who acknowledged Japan had taken the sovereignty of Korea against its will for a colonial rule in his apologetic statement in 2010. But the LDP would not like to mention a statement from a DPJ leader. Instead, a new Yoon-Kishida statement in the likes of the Kim Dae-jung–Keizo Obuchi declaration in 1988 may be possible.

What comes next can define whether the two countries can truly normalize their ties. The Japanese foreign minister’s comment that Japan merely lost 1 billion yen ($7.4 million), shortly after the comfort women deal, splashed cold waters on bilateral relationship.
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