Photo/Illutration South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers a speech during a news conference to mark his first 100 days in office at the presidential office in Seoul on Aug. 17. (Pool Photo via AP)

High-level talks between Japan and South Korea probably offer the best way to overcome outstanding wartime-related issues that have kept bilateral relations severely strained for far too long.

Both Tokyo and Seoul have a chance to make an all-out effort to fix their deeply damaged relationship, and set things in motion at the earliest opportunity.

In his first news conference since taking office, held to mark his 100th day in office, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Aug. 17 that his administration is working to resolve the thorny issue of compensation for wartime Korean laborers in a way both Japan and South Korea can accept.

In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to the plaintiffs. The Japanese government asserts the issue was legally settled by a bilateral agreement decades ago. If the seized assets of the Japanese companies are cashed in to pay compensation, Tokyo is bound to take strong retaliatory action.

In his address at the news conference, Yoon indicated his administration is seeking to find a solution designed to prevent this from happening. “I am giving good consideration to an idea that will not infringe on Japan’s sovereignty, something that the country is concerned about, and that will allow the creditors (plaintiffs) to receive damages,” he said.

Yoon’s remarks suggest his administration is trying to find a way to provide relief to the victims without causing damage to the Japanese companies involved. This stance represents a stronger commitment to not allowing the issue to deliver an additional blow to the bilateral relationship.

But his remarks provoked a backlash from former Korean laborers and the bereft families of those who have already died. They are also demanding that the Japanese firms apologize.

This is a formidable policy challenge for the Yoon administration. We can only hope that Seoul will be able to come up swiftly with a specific proposal to break the diplomatic impasse while responding sincerely to the voices of the victims as much as possible.

Yoon also sent a positive diplomatic signal to Japan in his speech on the National Liberation Day on Aug. 15, the anniversary of his country’s liberation from Japanese rule. He described Japan as “our partner” with whom South Korea must join forces to tackle various challenges.

“When Korea-Japan relations move toward a common future and when the mission of our times align, based on our shared universal values, it will also help us solve the historical problems that exist between our two countries,” Yoon said, stressing the need to improve the relations.

The political leader of South Korea, where people have complicated feelings toward Japan, needs a lot of courage to call for a better future of the bilateral relationship more strongly than his predecessor did.

This is all the more so for Yoon, who has been struggling to lift his low approval ratings since soon after he took office.

The series of remarks he made with regard to his country’s relations with Japan indicate his political determination to tackle this challenge.

Japan, which is responsible for its wartime past, should make moves in response to Yoon’s overture.

Successive governments in Japan touched on Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula by taking a humble attitude on various occasions by issuing statements. In addition to reaffirming this stance, the Japanese government should start dismantling restrictions on exports of certain sensitive technologies to South Korea that were imposed three years ago.

The export curbs were introduced as a reprisal to Seoul’s inaction to tackle the wartime labor issue. It will take time to lift them completely. But starting the process will send a positive message to help the Yoon administration’s efforts to build consensus on the issue at home.

With the situation in the Asia-Pacific growing increasingly more complicated, it should not be forgotten that Japan and South Korea face a raft of common challenges. Both countries are in a security alliance with the United States and have close economic ties with China. It makes good sense for the two countries to make concerted responses to threats posed by rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and North Korea’s arms programs.

Tokyo and Seoul need to rebuild their relationship through diplomatic efforts based on a broad and long-term perspective.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 18