Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon agreed on the importance of dialogue when they met for the first time in a year. This shared view represents a major step forward as the countries confront their frosty relations, regarded as the worst since they normalized ties, and potentially offers a foothold toward mending the fence.
Abe said during the meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 24 that the countries first must honor their promises to each other. His comment came in response to the South Korean Supreme Court ordering Japanese companies to compensate those in the country who were forced to work for the businesses during World War II. Tokyo maintains that the wartime labor issue was settled by a treaty signed in 1965.
But the Japanese leader also said that ties between Tokyo and Seoul are important and cannot be left in their current state. It is significant that the two sides shared their concerns over the bilateral relationship, which has deteriorated since the first court ruling a year ago.
South Koreans are aggressively boycotting Japanese products and shunning travel to the country, squeezing not only Japanese companies but also regional economies. Social media have expanded the anti-Japanese movement from a limited phenomenon into a widespread campaign. It is regrettable that even younger South Koreans who are familiar with Japanese culture are involved in the boycotts.
Polls show that international exchanges lead directly to positive opinions about the other country. But the growing rift between the two governments now casts a shadow over exchanges involving the younger generations and those conducted at the local level. Separating politics from business and cultural exchanges is difficult when diplomatic ties deteriorate this severely.
Little time remains to repair this important relationship. Assets seized from Japanese companies as part of the wartime labor lawsuits are expected to be sold as early as the end of the year. South Korea is railing against Japanese export restrictions on chipmaking materials, while a crucial military intelligence pact that lets Japanese, South Korean and U.S. forces share sensitive information quickly is set to expire in November.
In a letter delivered by Lee, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Abe that Japan is a necessary partner for peace in Northeast Asia, and he urged cooperation toward resolving bilateral issues. For this to happen, Moon needs to propose new steps on the wartime labor issue and both sides have to compromise.
Though Abe and Moon will attend an international gathering this fall, they are not expected to sit down for a formal meeting until a trilateral summit with China in late December. Many obstacles remain for Japan and South Korea to resolve their issues, but both governments must lay the groundwork for an Abe-Moon meeting through continued dialogue.
On Oct. 22, Lee paid his respects at Tokyo's Shin-Okubo Station, where a South Korean student died in 2001 trying to save a man from an oncoming train. Also recently, Japanese rugby fans cheered loudly for a South Korean-born member of Japan's national team at the sport's World Cup. Relations are not locked into a downward spiral, but the next step depends on the diplomatic authorities of both countries.