Moon struggling to find breakthrough in ties with Japan

13-Jan-2021 Intellasia | KoreaTimes | 6:02 AM Print This Post

One of the more noticeable differences in Moon’s New Year address, Monday, compared to the one in 2020 was the reduced focus on international relations, particularly regarding Japan.

The Korean leader’s reference to the neighbouring country only contained a few words ? “striving for forward-looking relations.”

The New Year address came as Moon has been dealt with an additional burden in Korea-Japan relations from another historical dispute ? this one involving Korean victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II. Last week, the Seoul Central District Court ruled in favour of 12 Korean plaintiffs who had demanded compensation from the Japanese government for the atrocities they suffered during Japanese colonial rule of the peninsula.

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga said his government would never accept the Korean court’s ruling, adding that all wartime reparations were settled with the 1965 normalisation treaty, which has been the basis of bilateral relations since then.

Under these circumstances, the reduced presence of Japan in Moon’s New Year speech is seen to reflect the limitations his administration faces in realising any visible headway in bilateral relations during the remainder of his presidency which will end in May 2022.

Some experts advised the two countries to continue to seek dialogue that will bring them one step closer to a historical reconciliation, despite the additional difficulty from the recent ruling.

“Even when the 1965 normalisation treaty was concluded, both sides knew that the agreement itself was insufficient,” a history professor told The Korea Times on the condition of anonymity. “Since then, both countries have conducted negotiations on many issues such as the comfort women, Korean victims of the atomic bombs, and Koreans in Sakhalin. Through such efforts, the two sides have been able to find remedial action to complement the treaty. We should not forget these past precedents.”

Other experts say Japan must become more flexible in its approach to historical problems with Korea and abandon its rigid position that past treaties have completely settled all colonial-era reparations.

“Tokyo says that the comfort women issue has been completely resolved through the 2015 bilateral agreement. And it is standing by its position that the Korean government must fulfill the deal,” said Lee Su-hoon, Moon’s first ambassador to Japan, in a recent Facebook post. “We cannot move forward on the comfort women issue with this kind of posture from Japan.”

Cheong Wa Dae has remained silent on the ruling, saying that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will explain Korea’s position on the issue.

In last year’s New Year speech, Moon described Japan as “one of our close neighbours,” and called on Tokyo to remove export restrictions on Korea ? which had been imposed in protest against another Korean court ruling that ordered Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labour during wartime and the occupation ? to pave the way for developing bilateral relations in a more cooperative manner. This was a few weeks after he held a summit with then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Chengdu, China in December 2019, on the sidelines of the Korea-Japan-China Summit.

Some experts have underlined the role of multilateral diplomatic frameworks such as the trilateral summit to mend ties between Korea and Japan by working on issues of mutual interest, such as security on the Korean Peninsula. But this year, it’s hard to expect a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the annual trilateral meeting even if it takes place, whether in an in-person or virtual format. Suga had already refused to come to Korea, the host of the meeting this time, unless Seoul “brought a solution” to the forced labour dispute.


Category: Korea

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