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Japan-South Korea rift

Moment of truth looms for Japan-South Korea relations

With the arrival of spring, ties may turn cooler rather than warmer

Although Japan's Shinzo Abe and South Korea's Moon Jae-in will soon have a chance to improve relations, stubborn challenges will stand in their way. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Reuters) 

TOKYO -- It can be compared to the lull before the storm.

Relations between Japan and South Korea are now in a period of relative calm after becoming stormy and plunging to what was said to be their lowest point since the neighbors normalized diplomatic ties in 1965.

But the current detente may prove to be short-lived as relations are likely to encounter turbulence again come spring.

A crucial three-month period for the countries begins in April, when negotiations over thorny issues that have strained ties will go down to the wire.

Since November, relations between Japan and South Korea have been in "management mode," and there have been some favorable developments.

That month the countries averted the expiry of their military-intelligence sharing pact, formally known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, doing so at the last minute.

In December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held formal talks for the first time in a year and three months. The sit-down took place in the Chinese city of Chengdu on the sidelines of a trilateral summit of leaders from Japan, China and South Korea.

Japan and South Korea in December also resumed a government-to-government policy dialogue regarding export controls. The talks had been on hiatus for three and a half years.

The development came months after Seoul decided to terminate the GSOMIA in response to tougher Japanese controls on exports to South Korea.

Also in December, South Korea's Constitutional Court dismissed an appeal by a group of wartime "comfort women" who claimed that an agreement reached between the countries in 2015 was unconstitutional.

In the agreement, the Japanese and South Korean governments confirmed the "final" and "irreversible" resolution to the "comfort women" issue, one of the history-related disputes that have created tensions between the countries.

Recent efforts to manage relations have been led by South Korea's and Japan's top leaders.

In his policy speech opening the current regular session of Japan's parliament on Jan. 20, Abe referenced relations with South Korea for the first time in two years.

"South Korea is the most important neighbor that essentially shares basic values and strategic interests (with Japan)," Abe said.

The fact that Abe used the word "essentially" may reflect his deep-rooted distrust of South Korea. Still, he demonstrated his intention to prevent relations from deteriorating further.

During his New Year's news conference on Jan. 14, meanwhile, Moon refrained from criticizing Japan.

Civic group members in November came out against a bill that would create a fund to compensate wartime labor victims with public and private sector contributions.   © Kyodo

The budding goodwill now must face down three potentially explosive annual events that will take place in the coming weeks. If management mode prevails, the events will be met with a restrained tone.

The first, a ceremony to commemorate Takeshima Day, will be held in Japan's Shimane Prefecture on Feb. 22. The territorial dispute over Takeshima Island, known as Dokdo in South Korea, has long been an irritant to Japan-South Korea relations. The Sea of Japan island is now under South Korea's effective control.

In the second, Moon will deliver a speech at a ceremony marking the March 1 Independence Movement -- a 1919 uprising against Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The third event, the announcement of Japan's junior high school textbook screening results, will come around March. In the past, Japanese text book descriptions regarding matters such as Takeshima have drawn strong backlashes from South Korea.

The frosty relations have hurt Japan's economy. The number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan in 2019 tumbled 25.9% from the previous year to 5.58 million, the Japan National Tourism Organization announced in January.

Since the beginning of this year, South Korean travelers have been gradually returning to various parts of Japan. This shows that relations might have hit bottom.

But as spring arrives so too will dark clouds.

The darkest issue might be that of Japanese companies being ordered to compensate Koreans mobilized to work for Japanese companies during World War II. South Korea's Supreme Court in late 2018 ruled against Japanese companies in cases of wartime labor. The Japanese government's position is that the compensation issue was settled by the 1965 agreement that normalized diplomatic ties.

Those ties began unraveling soon after the rulings.

It has been said that Japanese corporate assets seized in South Korea in the wake of the rulings will be sold as early as "around spring" so that the proceeds can be distributed to former wartime laborers.

If Japanese companies suffer actual damage, Tokyo would have no choice but to retaliate. This would result in bilateral relations cooling again. The two sides could even fall into a quagmire.

To avoid this worst-case scenario, internal politics and diplomatic maneuvering are expected to intensify toward Seoul resolving the compensation issue and Tokyo reviewing its tightened controls on South Korea-bound exports.

South Korea will find it difficult to make any concession to Japan until after a general election on April 15, in which conservative and progressive forces will clash.

In Japan, there is a lot of talk about a possible dissolution of the lower house, the Diet's more powerful chamber, for a general election and Abe's possible retirement, both after the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

In the runup to the Tokyo Olympics, Japan and South Korea will have an opportunity to put their differences behind them. (Photo by Kai Fujii) 

This opens the possibility that Japanese politics will become fluid this autumn or later. More to the point, it leaves a three-month window for Japan-South Korea negotiations, from April 15 to July 24, when the Games begin.

There are three possible scenarios.

In one, diplomacy-oriented forces within the South Korean government will endeavor to settle the wartime labor issue immediately after the April 15 general election and then extract a loosening of the export controls from Japan.

But a bill aimed at resolving the wartime labor issue, which was compiled under the initiative of National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, is facing objections from some plaintiffs and their support groups.

President Moon has been slow to act, preferring a "victim oriented" approach to the issue.

At least as long as the wartime labor issue remains unresolved, the Japanese government cannot reverse its export control measures. Tokyo also cannot remain quiet about the sale of Japanese corporate assets seized in South Korea.

In another scenario, Tokyo and Seoul will take particular care to keep from falling into a diplomatic quagmire immediately before the Olympics.

President Moon wants to use the Games as an opportunity for North and South Korea to move closer. North Korea took a sharp turn toward a dialogue before and during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea's Pyeongchang. Moon wants to see the same thing happen this summer.

The president is said to be considering a visit to Japan during the Games. Cooperation from Japan will be crucial if he is to come under the spotlight again over the North Korea issue, his top priority.

In that case, two ideas could emerge -- for Tokyo and Seoul to explore a delay in turning seized Japanese corporate assets into cash, or for the governments to start picking up the pieces while continuing talks on the wartime labor and export control issues.

The third and most realistic scenario is that Abe and Moon will leave the job of fully mending ties to their successors while creating an environment that allows them to remain in management mode.

In politics, no one knows what will happen tomorrow. And in diplomacy, international affairs -- the U.S. presidential election in November, the North Korean nuclear issue, U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks, the U.S.-China trade war -- always threaten to intervene.

The spread of the new coronavirus that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan could also affect the pace of the two nations repairing their relations; cases have been confirmed in both countries.

But amid the risks Tokyo and Seoul could capitalize on the crucial three-month window to work out a dramatic turnaround.

Preparing for this three-month opportunity will be important, and the clock is already ticking.

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