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(LEAD) (News Focus) Will S. Korea, Japan find momentum to ease tensions?

Diplomacy 14:48 August 14, 2019

(ATTN: REWRITES paras 7-10 with updated info)
By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 14 (Yonhap) -- With South Korea-Japan ties on a dangerous slippery slope, questions are arising over whether, when and how they can mitigate tensions from their rancorous diplomatic and trade row -- or find an exit from it.

Neither side has shown signs of backing down, as political stakes are high with rising nationalism fanning historical animosity. But observers are pinning hopes on possible diplomatic engagement in the coming months to provide momentum for at least de-escalation.

The long-fraught relations between Seoul and Tokyo have been spiraling downward as Japan imposed tighter restrictions on exports to South Korea of three key industrial materials last month and decided this month to remove the neighboring country from a list of favored trade partners.

Seoul sees Tokyo's export control measures as political retribution for last year's Supreme Court rulings here that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

"With bilateral ties falling off a cliff, what needs to be done is to put a brake on it, stop relations from sliding further downward or get off the slippery slope," Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University, said.

"But in the current situation where the two sides remain poles apart, just putting the brake on and slowing the pace of the fall seems to be the pressing task," he added.

Amid Washington's worries about the spat's ramifications on regional stability, diplomatic authorities of the two sides appear to feel the growing need for dialogue.

Seoul and Tokyo have been coordinating on a possible bilateral meeting of their foreign ministers -- Kang Kyung-wha and Taro Kono -- next week when they are expected to gather in China for trilateral talks with their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to discuss preparations for a possible tripartite summit later this year.

"Channels of communication between the diplomatic authorities remain open as always," a Seoul official said. "Even if we can't expect much from dialogue, meeting each other would be meaningful in and of itself."

Vice foreign ministers from Seoul and Tokyo have sought to meet in a third country this week, but they apparently canceled their talks at the last minute after the South Korean daily, Chosun Ilbo, reported on the planned meeting.

The focus of attention for such diplomatic talks is whether each side will make a new proposal.

Seoul has proposed that South Korean and Japanese firms create a joint fund to compensate the forced labor victims under the so-called one-plus-one proposal.

But Tokyo has spurned it, arguing that all reparation issues stemming from its colonial rule were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties despite the South Korean top court's recognition of victims' individual rights to claim damages.

Some observers predicted that Japan could make more concrete diplomatic steps following an expected cabinet reshuffle next month.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's planned Liberation Day speech on Thursday is also drawing keen attention, as some anticipate that he could hold out an olive branch to Japan to signal that Seoul does not want the bilateral spat to spin out of control.

The bilateral tussle could take a turn for the worse should legal steps begin -- possibly later this year -- to liquidate South Korea-based assets of the Japanese firms that have refused to comply with the court order to provide restitution to the forced labor victims.

Seoul has maintained that it cannot intervene in civil litigation due to the constitutional separation of the executive, judiciary and legislative powers, while Tokyo has warned of stern action against any damage to Japanese firms.

Analysts hope that the two sides can explore a compromise during a series of upcoming multilateral diplomatic events where Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could meet face to face.

The events include the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month, the annual summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Thailand in October and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Chile in November.

This photo, taken June 28, 2019, shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan. (Yonhap)

Seoul and Tokyo could also find an opportunity for engagement on the sidelines of the formal enthronement ceremony in October for new Japanese Emperor Naruhito who has ushered in the new era of Reiwa, meaning "beautiful harmony."

Moon has cautioned against emotional responses to Japan's economic retaliation, calling for a level-headed, diplomatic approach from a long-term perspective that will lead to a "fundamental measure" to address the ongoing spat with Tokyo.

Tokyo appears unready yet to meet halfway as it rationalizes its economic reprisal by citing security concerns in trading with the longtime friendly country, although Seoul believes they are unsubstantiated and politically motivated.

The political stakes seem so high in the trade spat that neither side can make a dramatic first conciliatory gesture, analysts have noted. Abe appears intent on rallying his supporters to press his conservative agenda, including a constitutional revision, while Moon faces parliamentary elections next year, expected to be a referendum on his performance.

"Politics is apparently at work in this game. Should one side back off first, this could deal a blow to it," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.

"Thus the role of the United States, an ally of both Asian countries, is important so as to make space for both sides to avoid escalation and come out for dialogue," he added.

Washington, which has long sought trilateral security cooperation with its two core Asian allies for regional stability, has repeatedly showed its intention to engage to help them find a "path forward." But it has appeared reluctant to be seen taking either side.

With apparent signs of the diplomatic spat being politicized to a certain extent in both countries, analysts stressed the importance of the role that civil society and media can play to lead the neighbors to a measured, win-win solution to their conflict.


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