Japanese and South Korean officials have descended into a vicious circle of escalating criticism, to the point where the relationship between the two Asian powers is said to be at its worst since the countries normalized diplomatic ties in 1965. Tokyo and Seoul need to recognize the seriousness of this problem and put an end to it.
In October last year, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay damages to South Koreans who had been forced to work for the Japanese steelmaker during Japan's colonial rule. The legal counsel for the plaintiffs has indicated that plans are underway to begin the process of liquidating the company's assets seized in South Korea to secure compensation. Should that happen, the steelmaker would take a real hit, setting an alarming precedent for all Japanese companies embroiled in similar lawsuits in South Korea.
Successive governments in Seoul have taken the position that the issue of whether former wartime workers had the right to claim compensation had been settled with a bilateral accord concluded in 1965. Despite this, the current South Korean government, led by President Moon Jae-in, has remained silent for over three months since the top court gave its verdict.
The Japanese side has looked on with increasing dismay as the South Korean government fails to clarify its stance on the matter while the plaintiffs push ahead with legal proceedings to gain compensation.
Bilateral relations have taken a hit on the military front, too. A South Korean warship allegedly trained weapon-guiding radar on a patrol plane used by Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force over the Sea of Japan. The two countries have failed to narrow their differences over what they believe happened, leading to the cancellation of events aimed at deepening ties between Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the South Korean military. Their bickering has cast a shadow over the national security outlooks for both countries, whose militaries had built good relations until recently. Most observers agree that the two sides need some time to cool off.
The flames of distrust were further fanned when South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang made controversial remarks in a recent interview with a U.S. media organization. He called for an apology by Japanese Emperor Akihito over the issue of wartime "comfort women."
Moon, a former head of the federation of South Korean and Japanese lawmakers, is a political heavyweight known for his deep knowledge of Japan. Once, while visiting Japan, he told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the two countries should pursue a future-oriented relationship. Given his background, Moon should have thought more deeply about how his remarks could impact bilateral ties.
In his New Year's press conference, President Moon accused Japanese officials of politicizing the wartime labor issue. But who is politicizing here? His ill-considered remarks were clearly aimed at a domestic audience. Seoul has obviously decided to put souring relations on the back burner and focus instead on North Korea and the domestic economy. And for this, South Korea bears the bulk of the blame for the deteriorating ties.
Moves are underway in Japanese political circles to call for strong retaliatory steps against South Korea. But this would hardly serve to mend relations. Tokyo and Seoul must prevent the diplomatic tensions from affecting flourishing private-sector exchanges. Things have gotten so bad that a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has introduced resolutions in Congress calling on the two governments, both close allies of Washington, to improve their relations.
This all comes at a sensitive moment. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement -- a series of demonstrations and protests for Korean independence from Japan that began on March 1, 1919. This milestone is likely to further fuel anti-Japan sentiment, making it especially important that politicians on both sides refrain from making antagonizing remarks. A deepening of the feud between these important neighbors benefits neither. It is time for politics to play its proper role and put the conflict to rest.