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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 22)

Defense 07:13 May 22, 2020

Mend ties with Japan
Seoul and Tokyo should resolve historical disputes

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing a significant change to our way of thinking and way of life, turning what was seen as impossible into possible. But if there is one thing we still cannot change, that could be relations between South Korea and Japan.

Some pundits suggest that Seoul and Tokyo step up cooperation in their response to COVID-19. They believe collaboration could set the stage for the two neighbors to mend their soured ties which have hit rock bottom mainly due to history-related issues.

However, leaders of the two countries have yet to make any meaningful efforts to work together in the face of the global public health crisis and its devastating economic consequences. They are certainly not ready to turn the crisis into an opportunity by making joint efforts to contain the virus and avoid a looming economic recession.

Nevertheless, it is not necessary to be overly pessimistic. We have to look for a silver lining in the diplomatic and trade row. Japan's latest annual diplomatic book seems to signal a change in its attitude toward South Korea, although Tokyo repeated its territorial claims to our easternmost islets of Dokdo.

The Japanese government referred to South Korea as an "important neighbor" in the book. The favorable expression came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used a similar phrase in parliamentary sessions last October and early this year. Such an expression, however, cannot be interpreted as a sign of Japan easing its hardline stance on Korea. Yet it can be hoped that the conciliatory term will be translated into action.

In the 2017 diplomatic book, the Asian giant touted Korea as a country that "shares strategic interests." But the nationalist Abe administration deleted this phrase in 2018 and 2019 amid its tilting further toward the right and its stalled ties with Korea's liberal government under President Moon Jae-in.

The Moon administration, which was inaugurated in May 2017, virtually nullified the 2015 Seoul-Tokyo deal aimed at resolving the wartime sex slavery issue, calling for Japan's sincere apology and proper legal compensation. In 2018, the Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation to surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. The ruling has also strained relations between the two countries, leading to Japan's export restrictions on key industrial materials essential for Korean firms to make semiconductors and display panels last July. Tokyo also excluded Korea from a list of favored trading partners, further worsening bilateral ties.

Now both sides should try to find an exit from the ever-escalating confrontation. There will be no winners in this tit for tat. More than anything else, Seoul and Tokyo must work together to resolve history-based conflicts and forge a future-oriented partnership. Moon and Abe need to exercise their leadership to narrow differences between the two countries and take realistic steps toward reconciliation, friendship and co-prosperity.
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