Photo/IllutrationA live TV broadcast of South Korean President Moon Jae-in's speech during a ceremony to celebrate the Korean Liberation Day at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul on Aug. 15 (AP Photo)

This summer saw Japan and South Korea mired in a toxic political conflict with no apparent way out in sight.

As if the poisonous air between Tokyo and Seoul is polluting the minds of people in the two countries, hostile sentiments have flared on both sides.

The bitter political row is now damaging bilateral economic and cultural ties that had been seen as relatively robust.

While Aug. 15 is commemorated in Japan as the day World War II ended, in South Korea it is celebrated as National Liberation Day marking the Korean Peninsula's liberation from Japan’s colonial rule.

In an address to mark the day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in toned down his anti-Japanese rhetoric with regard to touchy issues of historical perception and called for mutual efforts to remedy the soured ties, saying, “if Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands.”

Some fundamental problems still threaten to ruin the bilateral relationship. But the two governments should take this opportunity to end the cycle of economic retaliation, which only harms the interests of both nations, and start serious dialogue to restore relations to a firmer footing.

The root of current conflict lie in issues related to the troubled history between the two countries.

The Moon administration has effectively eviscerated a bilateral agreement on the thorny issue of “comfort women,” many of whom were from the Korean Peninsula and forced to provide sex to wartime Japanese soldiers.

Delivering an additional blow to the bilateral relationship, the South Korean Supreme Court last autumn ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans brought to work at Japanese mines, factories and dockyards during World War II.

It was the first in a series of rulings that are at odds with Seoul’s traditional position on the issue.

The ruling was based on the assumption that Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula under the 1910 Japan-Korea Treaty was unlawful.

After the end of the war, the two countries got embroiled in a dispute over the legal status of the annexation in the process leading to the 1965 treaty that established a formal diplomatic relationship between the two countries. The two sides settled the question with an ambiguous declaration that the 1910 treaty was “already null and void.”


The top court ruling incurred the wrath of the Japanese government because, by proclaiming the 1910 treaty to be illegal, the decision could expand the scope of compensation indefinitely.

Even though it has said it respects the court’s decision, the Moon administration understands that the ruling is inconsistent with the South Korean government’s traditional position on the issue.

The situation will not improve if Seoul continues dragging its feet on clarifying its own position.

In the Aug. 15 address, Moon also stated: “Together with Japan, we have tried to practically assuage the suffering of victims from the Japanese colonial period. We have consistently maintained the position that we should learn from history and steadily work together.”

The process of healing he referred to was supported by diplomatic wisdom the two countries developed together in the postwar period.

Even though the treaty to normalize the diplomatic relations left some ambiguity concerning the annexation treaty, politicians on both sides have consistently endeavored to prevent the issue from straining bilateral ties.

From this viewpoint, we urge Moon to take positive actions now to help restore trust between Tokyo and Seoul.

First, he should appreciate and honor the 2015 bilateral agreement on the comfort women issue negotiated by the leaders of the two countries to settle the issue “finally and irreversibly.”

The Moon administration’s argument that the agreement negotiated by then South Korean President Park Geun-hye is flawed does not justify its nullification. If a country breaks such a formal agreement with another, mutual trust cannot be maintained.

The Moon administration should reflect on the fact that by denying the diplomatic achievement of the previous conservative government it has only caused Seoul’s relations with Tokyo to deteriorate sharply and put itself in a diplomatic quandary.

Despite Moon’s conciliatory speech on Aug. 15, rallies to denounce the Abe administration were held across South Korea that day. A growing number of South Koreans are putting the blame for the current situation on the Abe administration, instead of Japan as a nation.

There is no doubt that the Abe administration has compounded the situation by tightening controls on exports to South Korea. Even if the Moon administration’s handling of the history issues has been flawed, the Abe administration made an inappropriate move by linking these political and diplomatic issues to economic relations between the two countries. The two areas should be kept separate.


Simply rejecting South Korea’s views and actions does nothing to help resolve the conflict.

The Abe administration is often viewed as reluctant to show repentance over Japan’s wartime past. This perception has spawned a profound distrust of the Japanese government among many South Koreans.

In order to remove South Korean people’s distrust, the Abe administration should announce afresh its views on history issues concerning Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The Abe administration should hold talks with the Moon administration over possible ways for Seoul to honor the 2015 agreement on comfort women and clarify Tokyo’s official views about the issue at the same time.

The Japanese government maintains that its official views on the comfort women issue were expressed in a statement issued in 1993 by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which said the Japanese government extends “its sincere apologies and remorse to” former comfort women.

As for the annexation of the Korean Peninsula, a statement issued in 2010, the centenary of the annexation treaty, by then Prime Minister Naoto Kan and endorsed by the Cabinet at that time, still remains Japan’s official position on the matter. The statement at least acknowledged the injustice of the annexation, saying, “the Korean people of that time were deprived of their country and culture ... by the colonial rule which was imposed against their will.”

If the Abe administration actively embraces these official views, it will reinforce its argument that South Korea needs to honor the promises it made in the past.

Calls have been made on both sides for a cool-headed response to the conflict. This reflects maturity in the bilateral relationship.

When a municipal government in Seoul started erecting banners calling for boycotts of Japanese products, a public outcry resulted and it was forced to remove them.

In Japan, a group of intellectuals and experts that included Haruki Wada, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, issued a statement asking, “Is South Korea Japan’s ‘enemy?’” and calling on the Japanese government to withdraw the export controls and engage in dialogue with Seoul. More than 8,000 people have supported the statement.


The funds for economic cooperation Japan provided to South Korea when formal diplomatic ties were established half a century ago not just helped lay the foundation for South Korea’s economic development in the following decades but also contributed to Japan’s economic growth.

The two countries have shared a history of developing together by building mutually beneficial relations.

Ties were nurtured through decades of strenuous efforts by politicians and others in both countries to overcome the obstacles posed by fresh, painful memories of the past. Good bilateral relations are an invaluable asset and an irreplaceable legacy of peace in the postwar period.

The question facing Japan and South Korea now is what kind of bilateral relationship do they want to leave for future generations.

It is time for the governments and citizens of both nations to ponder this question in a calm manner.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 17