Since South Korea announced its decision to stay in the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Seoul and Tokyo have been offering different explanations for the details of the meeting that preceded the announcement. Such reaction is not entirely incomprehensible considering that the termination of the intelligence sharing pact was such a critical issue and Seoul and Tokyo cannot afford to ignore public sentiment. However, this does not mean they can say whatever is convenient without thinking about the possible implications of their words on future negotiations.
Unless the two nations want to go back to where they were, they should stop the tit for tat and seize the rare opportunity for a dialogue. The trade war between South Korea and Japan began when the South Korean supreme court ordered Japanese firms to compensate Koreans’ forced labor in October last year, which was followed by Tokyo’s sudden decision to impose trade restrictions and remove Seoul from its whitelist of favored trade partners in July and Seoul’s announcement to pull out of the GSOMIA in August. If Seoul and Tokyo were to untangle this string of problems, they need to resolve them one by one in reverse order.
The Korean government decided to scrap the pact in response to Japan’s new export controls. Seoul untied the first knot by suspending the termination, and it also stopped the WTO dispute settlement process allowing room for Japan to ease export regulations. Now, Tokyo needs to step in and untie the next knot, which will then provide opportunities to discuss how to resolve the forced labor compensation issue.
One possible solution to the biggest bone of contention can be the “1+1+ α (alpha)” suggested by Moon Hee-sang, the speaker of the National Assembly of South Korea. It is basically a fund that collects donations from businesses and people of both nations. Japan has reportedly shown interest in this idea. Guaranteed, this is not an easy solution as it requires an apology from Japan and consent from victims. However, this issue must be resolved by building broad consensus among the governments, politicians, businesses and people of both countries.
Tokyo and Seoul saw once again historical issues spiraling into economic and security crises. In order to prevent a recurrence, the two nations should enhance their crisis management skills. This means, politicians need to look at the big picture instead of shortsightedly pursuing popularity while the media and people should applaud them for doing so. It is also important to carefully choose what to say is in a world where almost every piece of information is shared in real time.