Japan will usher in the Reiwa era on Wednesday in the wake of the inauguration of King Naruhito. On Tuesday, the 31-year Heisei era will come to an end timed with King Akihito’s abdication.
The opening of the new era, which the Japanese king and era name are replaced, holds a very special meaning for the Japanese people. South Korea should congratulate Japan’s opening of a new era, but no one can afford to even mention it amid worsening bilateral ties. The two countries have become even emotionally hostile after the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last October that Japanese steelmakers should compensate Korean slave laborers for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, dismantlement of a foundation for comfort women (sex slaves) in Korea, and conflict surrounding their patrol airplanes. In a recent Dong-A Ilbo survey, all 10 South Korean and Japanese experts said the two countries cannot improve bilateral relations despite the opening of the Reiwa era.
The two nations reached a new low point in their bilateral relations since the opening of their diplomatic ties, while the disaccord in politics and diplomacy is spreading to the economic realm and Japan mentioned retaliatory measures including hiking tariffs on imports from South Korea. Notably, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who are at the apex of the Seoul-Tokyo conflict, have continued to maintain extremely hostile relations. Japanese Prime Minister Abe has called for “exit from the post-war era” and “construction of a strong and beautiful Japan,” pushing to amend the Pacifist Constitution. Separately, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is focusing on liquidation and cleaning of deep-rooted evils including pro-Japanese people in South Korea, and unity of the Korean people through reconciliation with North Korea.
Prime Minister Abe, who has solidified his foundation to remain in power through 2021, has openly expressed his intention to push for constitutional amendment, and is staging far-reaching diplomatic endeavors. Last week, Abe spent 10 hours together with U.S. President Donald Trump while strengthening their friendship, and Trump promised to visit Japan twice in late May and late June, when G20 leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Japan. In contrast, South Korea is highly likely to take measures to transform Japanese steelmakers’ assets into liquid asset to forfeit them in connection with their use of Korean slave laborers during the Second World War around that time. This move could be used as an excuse by the Japanese government to launch retaliatory measures.
Despite the history of both friendship and hostility, South Korea and Japan are closely interlinked geographically and they cannot disregard each other. The situation wherein political conflict even affects economy, national security and exchange in the private sector will benefit none of the two sides. Moon and Abe should meet at G20 summit and work on reversing the deteriorating bilateral ties, while working-level officials should seek to find solutions to challenges including compensation for Korean slave laborers. To find a way to end hostile relations, both nations should make all out efforts to create a mood of reconciliation using the G20 summit as a turning point.
Young-A Soh firstname.lastname@example.org