Photo/IllutrationSouth Korean President Moon Jae-in holds his New Year news conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 10. (Provided by Dong-A Ilbo)

The relationship between Japan and South Korea is spiraling down a dark tunnel due to an increasingly acrimonious dispute.

It started in October with the South Korean top court’s ruling ordering Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to compensate four South Koreans who were conscripted to work for the company during World War II.

In a news conference on Jan. 10, South Korean President Moon Jae-in stressed the need for both countries to “make serious efforts to come up with wise ideas” to overcome the crisis.

Given that the issue concerns an unfortunate chapter of the history of bilateral relations, Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, both sides should try to meet halfway to find common ground instead of taking a rigid stance.

But the process must start with an action by the South Korean government, which should make its position on the issue clear. Seoul should not forget the fact that the two countries have been fostering mutual trust and expanding bilateral cooperation through diplomatic efforts based on a 1965 treaty that normalized ties and an accompanying agreement to settle all issues concerning wartime reparations.

Since the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, who governed the nation between 2003 and 2008, the successive South Korea governments maintained the position that the economic aid Japan provided to the country under the treaty included effective compensation to former laborers. What is the Moon administration’s plan to deal with the diplomatic implications of the ruling that contradicts the government’s traditional position?

This is no doubt a political hot potato for Moon. To sort out the situation, however, he needs to commit his administration to the traditional position, even at the risk of antagonizing many South Koreans, and swiftly announce measures to prevent a further deterioration of the bilateral relationship.

The group of lawyers representing the South Korean plaintiffs in the wartime labor case has applied to seize some of Nippon Steel's Korean assets, but has not yet sought to have them sold for cash to be paid as compensation.

They say they are still waiting for responses from both governments. But time is running short to take effective steps to improve the situation.

After the Japanese company was notified by the South Korean judiciary of the seizure of its assets, Tokyo sought talks with Seoul according to the 1965 agreement on reparations.

The talks requested by Japan are not ordinary bilateral negotiations but represent a step toward the establishment of an arbitration committee involving a third country.

This is the first time Japan has sought such talks since the two countries signed the treaty. In the event this process fails to settle the dispute, Tokyo is also considering asking the International Court of Justice to hear and rule on the case.

The Japanese government would make the move in hopes of gaining international recognition that the South Korean court’s ruling violates international law.

It is, however, open to question whether it is really wise to seek intervention by other countries through an arbitration committee or the ICJ to settle the dispute over such a history-related issue instead of trying to hammer out a solution through bilateral talks.

A ruling by these bodies, whether it favors Japan or South Korea, would leave hard feelings between both nations.

Even if the establishment of an arbitration panel is inevitable, both Tokyo and Seoul should not give up on efforts to reach some sort of agreement through bilateral talks.

In addition to this issue, the two countries are also locked in a row over Tokyo’s claim that a South Korean warship directed its fire-control radar at a Self-Defense Forces patrol plane last month.

The governments of the two countries, which are facing declining public support, are accusing each other of using these issues for political gain.

It is time for both countries to calm down and think seriously what should be done to end this vicious cycle to ensure further development of the relationship between the two countries, which share a wide range of common interests, from economic and security areas.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 11