South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a conversation Monday ahead of an ASEAN Plus Three summit in Bangkok. Yet, the two governments differed on the interpretation of the dialogue. While the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said that President Moon proposed a high-level discussion and Abe agreed on a need to resolve issues through every available means, the Japanese government stressed that Abe confirmed Japan’s principle stance about the issue of rights to demand compensation by former South Korean workers. Japanese media outlets have also not added a great meaning to the conversation between the two leaders, dismissing it as a meeting arranged to avoid criticism.
However, even though it took place without preparations and did not last long, the latest dialogue between Moon and Abe is significant in itself that it was the first one-on-one talks in 13 months. Moon’s active efforts for talks did work, and Abe also seemed at ease. Abe’s accepting of the proposal to hold the conversation, though he had earlier insisted that there would be no bilateral meeting with President Moon before his departure, shows that Japan agrees about a need to discuss pending issues. In fact, it took too long for the neighboring countries to reach an agreement on the importance of the bilateral relations and the resolution of issues through dialogue.
The atmosphere surrounding the bilateral ties also seems to be shifting. Following South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon’s attendance in the enthronement ceremony of Japanese Emperor Naruhito on Oct. 22, efforts to narrow the gap between Seoul and Tokyo are ongoing including the General Assembly of the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union on last Thursday, and South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang’s four-day visit to Japan.
Conflicts between South Korea and Japan were triggered when Seoul’s top court ordered Japanese companies in October last year to pay compensation for South Korean laborers mobilized for forced labor. The Japanese government imposed export curbs on South Korea in July, while the South Korean government announced in the following month that it would drop the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The security pact, scheduled to terminate at 12 a.m. on Nov. 22, is the most pressing challenge faced by both countries. They should keep the momentum of dialogue to maintain the GSOMIA in place and to urge Japan to withdraw from its export controls. Also, though there is no progress with regards to the feud over the court’s ruling, the two countries should acknowledge that it might take some time to resolve this issue.
National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, in a lecture at Waseda University in Japan on Tuesday, said that he would seek a legislation to support victims of forced labor through funding from the two countries’ businesses and people’s donations. Japan seemed uninterested in the idea, but it is still meaningful that political leaders began discussing solutions to the issue. The two countries should make active efforts to improve bilateral ties by holding negotiations under the table between diplomatic authorities and making the most of the information and wisdom of political leaders.