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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on April 26)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:06 April 26, 2021

On firm ground
Seoul needs to move in line with global standards in handling issues with Tokyo

It is uneasy to see both the judiciary and administration of South Korea as inconsistent in handling sensitive cases with Japan.

A panel of judges at the Seoul Central District Court last week dismissed a suit filed by South Korean victims of wartime sexual slavery against the Japanese government. In January, another judge of the same court ordered Tokyo to make reparations of 100 million won ($89,500) to each of a separate group of victims who had brought a similar case.

Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong told a parliamentary session last week that Seoul had little reason to object to Japan's plan to release contaminated water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea if Japan abided by the standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. On the following day, he flip-flopped on his position, emphasizing South Korea's firm objection to the plan.

His initial remark struck a different note from President Moon Jae-in's earlier instruction to "proactively consider" bringing the matter to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In a meeting with Japan's new ambassador here, Koichi Aiboshi, a day after Tokyo announced the water release plan on April 13, Moon said there was great concern among South Koreans, as the two nations are geographically close to each other and have shared waters.

Such inconsistent court rulings and government stances hamper Seoul from making a solid case against Tokyo on these thorny issues. Without ensuring internal consistency and coordination, South Korea can hardly win understanding and support from the international community with regard to disputes with Japan.

Issues between the two countries must be addressed in a way that meets globally accepted standards and international law.

In dismissing the suit by South Korean women forced into sexual servitude for imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II, the court cited the principle of sovereign immunity under international law, which allows a state to be immune from the jurisdiction of a foreign court. It noted that recognizing exemptions of sovereign immunity would inevitably lead to diplomatic clashes.

The ruling contradicted the judgment made in January that the principle could not apply to systematic crimes against humanity like wartime sexual slavery.

Japan is certainly required to take more sincere measures to apologize and compensate for the suffering of the victims of wartime sexual enslavement, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women." But it is another matter whether a foreign court has the necessary jurisdiction to enforce an apology and reparations from the Japanese government. There have been postwar court cases in other countries that were rejected for deliberation due to the principle of sovereign immunity.

The latest ruling should now serve as impetus for diplomatic efforts toward resolving the sexual slavery issue. It mentioned a 2015 agreement reached by Seoul and Tokyo to settle the matter, saying the bilateral accord meets diplomatic and legal requirements.

President Moon Jae-in's administration has flip-flopped its position on the agreement depending on domestic political needs since it assumed office in 2017.

Its confusing response to Tokyo's decision to dump radioactive water into the ocean also seems to stem from its tendency to avoid giving full consideration to international standards in order to score political points domestically.

If South Korea brings Japan's move to the international court, it will be difficult to make its case at the tribunal, as Seoul will have to prove direct damage from the release of diluted radioactive water, which the international nuclear watchdog sees as meeting global safety standards. During his visit to Seoul earlier this month, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate affairs, said Washington was "confident" about Japan's consultation with the IAEA over the water release plan.

Chung's initial hint at Seoul's acceptance of Tokyo's plan under a set of conditions, including its participation in the IAEA's safety verification process, is a reasonable approach that could ensure cooperation with other countries involved. Now that he has withdrawn his suggestion in the face of domestic criticism, South Korea leaves the international community unsure and skeptical about its future course of action.

Seoul should keep a clear and consistent stance in line with international standards if it wants to pursue its interests more effectively in disagreements with Tokyo.

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