Editorial Notes

Time to put Seoul-Tokyo ties back on track: Korea Herald

In the article, the paper says the country's recent summit with Washington built momentum for mending frayed ties between Seoul and Tokyo

Since late 2020, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his aides have expressed their intentions of improving ties with Japan. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A joint statement issued after last week's summit between the leaders of South Korea and the United States said they agreed on the "fundamental importance" of trilateral cooperation involving Japan to deal with North Korea and bolster the rules-based international order.

This shared understanding between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden heightens the likelihood that they will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for three-way talks during next month's G-7 summit in the UK.

The three countries are rescheduling a meeting of their defence chiefs, which was to be held in Singapore next week on the sidelines of a regional security forum that was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The push for such trilateral gatherings comes as Seoul and Tokyo are at loggerheads over East Asian history, with Washington calling on both countries to mend their frayed ties.

The US views robust cooperation with its two key Asian allies as essential to counter nuclear threats from North Korea and to keep a rising China in check.

In the eyes of critics, the Moon administration was negligent in seeking diplomatic solutions to the discord with Tokyo, letting diplomacy get complicated by court rulings here.

Some of Moon's associates and ruling party lawmakers appeared to want to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment to rally voters ahead of last year's legislative elections.

But since late last year, Moon and his aides have expressed their intentions of improving ties with Japan.

In a press conference in January, Moon suggested that his government would handle pending issues with Tokyo in a more flexible manner to forge a forward-looking bilateral partnership.

This abrupt shift in stance seemed to have been prompted partly by Washington's renewed push to strengthen trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo.

The Moon administration also felt the need to improve relations with Japan so that the Tokyo Olympic Games, scheduled to begin in July, could serve as an opportunity to engage with North Korea.

The administration was disappointed by the North's decision in April not to participate in the Tokyo Summer Olympics, saying it wanted to protect its athletes from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tokyo has remained callous to reconciliatory gestures from Seoul.

South Korea's ambassador to Japan, Kang Chang-il, was allowed to present his credentials to Japanese Emperor Naruhito only on Tuesday, four months after his arrival there.

Tokyo demands that the Moon administration do more than reiterate what it has already said: That it can do little about judicial rulings on cases brought by South Korean victims of sexual slavery and forced labour during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Tokyo has argued that all reparation issues stemming from its 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised ties between the two countries.

This long-standing discord over historical issues has spilled over into trade and investment.

A report released Tuesday by the Korea Economic Research Institute showed South Korea's trade with Japan decreased 11.9 per cent in 2019-2020, compared with the previous two years, while its manufacturers' investment in Japan dropped 25.6 per cent over the same period.

The country saw its overall trade and manufacturing investment overseas decrease 7.6 per cent and rise 28.6 per cent, respectively, in 2019-2020 from two years earlier.

Japanese manufacturers' investment here plummeted 62.1 per cent over the cited period, though their total investment abroad increased 47.8 per cent.

The report concluded that the reduced trade with Japan cost South Korea 1.2 trillion won (S$10.7 billion) in lost production over the past two years.

South Korea and Japan should put their relationship back on track to help shore up their economies as well as enhance trilateral cooperation with the US.

The Moon administration needs to address issues with Japan in a way that meets globally accepted standards and complies with international law, while Tokyo must listen to the demands of South Korean victims of its colonial-era atrocities.

The results of a recent survey of South Korean and Japanese citizens conducted by the Seoul-based economic research institute should prompt the governments of the two countries to step up efforts to enhance their bilateral partnership. Nearly 80 per cent of respondents in South Korea and 65 per cent of those in Japan said Seoul and Tokyo should try to build cooperative ties for the future.

The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 newspaper entities.

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