South Korean President Moon Jae-in appears to be changing course on key matters clouding ties between Tokyo and Seoul. In a series of statements, he altered his position on the issues of former wartime "comfort women" and a lawsuit filed by wartime laborers against Japan.
Moon Jae-in's government had not addressed the two court rulings, saying it must respect the decision by the judicial branch due to the separation of powers. We hope Moon's new statements indicate his desire to repair the bilateral relationship.
At a Jan. 18 press conference, Moon expressed his "confusion" over the Seoul Central District Court ruling that ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation to former comfort women. He also acknowledged the 2015 comfort women agreement between South Korea and Japan as an "official agreement between the two governments," and said he hopes to discuss a solution bilaterally based on the accord.
On the issue of wartime laborers, he clearly stated that liquidating the assets of Japanese companies is "not desirable" for bilateral relations. The government has unmistakably changed its position that it is "not involved."
It seems Moon has taken note of the seriousness of the situation. The two court decisions cite "Japan's illegal colonial rule" as the basis for compensation. Using this argument, similar lawsuits against Japan could continue to emerge in South Korea without end.
Other factors appear to be influencing Moon's thinking. The South Korean president has indicated he wants to use the Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity to foster dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, as well as between North and South Korea. The U.S. has inaugurated a new administration led by President Joe Biden, who has stressed the importance of alliances and mediated between Japanese and South Korean leaders on historical issues while he was vice president in the Obama administration.
Time is running short for the South Korean and Japanese governments. Procedures related to the sale of Japanese companies' assets in South Korea are underway, and the court decision in the lawsuit over former comfort women was finalized on Jan. 23. Tokyo has taken the position the lawsuit is illegitimate on the basis of "sovereign immunity," a concept under international law that shields a state against the jurisdiction of foreign courts. The Japanese government did not appeal the ruling because doing so would mean recognizing South Korea's jurisdiction over Japan.
The focus will turn to the potential seizure of Japanese government assets in South Korea. Diplomatic properties, such as embassies and consulates, are protected by the Vienna Convention, but it is thought that some assets could be confiscated. If this were to happen, Japan-South Korea relations would face a crisis.
As the confrontation between China and the U.S. drags on and North Korea continues to develop its nuclear and missile programs, the region is growing more unstable. That means Japan and South Korea can and should cooperate in a growing number of areas. It is time for Moon to show that he is willing to act on his statements, and for the Japanese government to double down on its diplomatic effort.