Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held official talks for the first time in 15 months on Dec. 24, raising hopes for a thaw in bilateral relations said to be at their worst since diplomatic normalization in 1965.
With the confrontation between the two governments fueling animosities in the public, it is significant that the leaders confirmed the need for dialogue toward resolving the issues at the core of the standoff.
The meeting in China was their first since the South Korean Supreme Court told Japanese companies to pay compensation for those forced to work during World War II. Abe said he "wants to improve the important Japan-South Korea relationship." And Moon responded by saying "we can never be far away."
There are already signs of a turning of the tide. South Korea reversed course on terminating the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, at the last minute and Japan eased export restrictions on chipmaking materials bound for South Korea. While efforts toward dialogue are welcome, we need to recognize the reality that the tension flare-ups since 2018 have deeply scarred bilateral relations.
In a recent survey by the Cabinet Office, only 26.7% of Japanese said they have an affinity for South Korea, a record low. In South Korea, consumers have continued to boycott Japanese products and avoided traveling to Japan, financially straining affected companies as well as tourist destinations counting on travelers from the neighboring country.
It is the government's job to foster the private-level exchanges and corporate partnerships that form the basis of bilateral relations.
In response to Moon's request for Japan to bring down the export controls to levels before the standoff, Abe said it is essential that Seoul assumes responsibility for resolving the wartime labor issue. South Korean lawmakers submitted legislation that would solicit donations from companies and individuals in both countries to fund the compensation. While the bill has been criticized in South Korea, Tokyo should wait and see how far this effort will go.
Japan and South Korea share many common challenges and can cooperate in addressing them, such as reversing a graying society and dealing with the fallout of the U.S.-China trade war. There are many instances of successful partnerships in which Japanese and South Korean companies bring together their expertise in doing business in third countries. National security cooperation is also urgent as North Korea's year-end deadline for denuclearization talks with the U.S. approaches.
Given the fragility of the geopolitical situation, politicians on both sides should refrain from emotional responses and explore ways for building a strategic partnership. Abe and Moon should show leadership in order to turn this opportunity into a real detente.