Recent moves between South Korea and Japan have raised a cautious hope that their bilateral relationship, which has plummeted to the lowest level in decades, may begin to improve to the benefit of both sides.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office in September, has made it clear that he will follow policies pursued by his predecessor Shinzo Abe.
Still, pundits here say that Suga’s practical leadership could help provide a momentum for enhancing Seoul-Tokyo ties, which were strained during Abe’s second stint that spanned almost eight years as the hawkish, conservative leader maintained a hardline stance on historical and other issues with South Korea.
Suga held phone talks with President Moon Jae-in last month after sending a reply to a congratulatory message from Moon. Personal exchanges were barely made between Moon and Suga’s predecessor amid the chilling ties between South Korea and Japan.
In what could be seen as the first step toward putting bilateral ties back on normal track, Japan last week allowed businesspeople from South Korea to enter it without a 14-day coronavirus quarantine.
The special entry procedure comes about seven months after Japan effectively banned the entry of visitors from South Korea on March 9 to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, with the imposition of stricter quarantine measures and suspension of the 90-day visa waiver program for South Koreans. In response, South Korea tightened health screening at airports for arrivals from Japan and halted its own visa-free entry program for Japanese visitors.
Such entry curbs further strained bilateral relations between the two neighboring nations, which had already frayed over historical and trade issues.
Tokyo was angered by a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court here, which ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean men forced to work for them during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula. It has claimed all reparation issues stemming from the colonial era were settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized ties with South Korea.
In an apparent reprisal for the ruling, Tokyo last year imposed restrictions on the export of high-tech materials to South Korea.
Despite the long-standing discord over the unfortunate history between them, South Korea and Japan share an ever-growing need to strengthen cooperation to cope with the economic shock of the pandemic crisis and rising threats to regional security.
Moon and Suga should join hands to remove hurdles to forging a future-oriented partnership between the two countries.
In more immediate terms, Moon and Suga need close cooperation with each other to ensure a success in a trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to be held here later this year and during the Tokyo Olympics, which has been postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is notable that public sentiment against each other’s nation has recently shown signs of improving. Most South Koreans cite Japan as their preferred destination for post-pandemic sightseeing trips abroad, with Korean dramas highly popular with Japanese viewers.
Hopefully, the spread of this positive atmosphere might help get political leaders in both countries to be less tempted to fuel bilateral conflicts for their domestic political gain.
Suga’s Cabinet is urged to lift export curbs on South Korea, which his predecessor is known to have pressed Japan’s trade officials to impose despite their concerns about the negative effects of the measure.
This move would prompt South Korea to withdraw its own restrictions on imports from Japan, paving the way for restoring a full-fledged cooperation between the two economies closely interconnected through supply chains.
For its part, the Moon administration needs to make efforts to bar historical issues from continuing to hold back South Korea-Japan ties from moving forward.
If Japanese companies’ assets here are confiscated to pay compensation to forced labor victims under the legal procedure approved by a local court, bilateral relationship could be pushed over the cliff.
Moon and his aides have repeatedly said the court ruling should be respected and there is little they can do with regard to it. But the Moon government needs to work with main political parties to enact a special law that could allow for a more flexible solution to the thorny issue.
Last but not least, the wider public in both countries should assume more active roles at various levels to help put bilateral ties on track without leaving the settlement of disputes solely to government officials and politicians.