The range of pending issues between South Korea and Japan are so complex and deep-rooted that they cannot be expected to be solved by a meeting between their leaders.
Still, Tuesday’s summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe produced critical momentum for the dialogue needed to resolve the long-standing disputes between the two countries.
The first Moon-Abe summit in 15 months had been scheduled for half an hour, but instead lasted 45 minutes. The summit followed their tripartite meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu.
Both Moon and Abe struck a conciliatory tone, expressing hopes of improving the strained bilateral ties.
Moon said South Korea and Japan were the closest of neighbors and could “never be apart,” though their relationship had become “uncomfortable” from time to time.
He said it was important for the two sides to have “frank dialogue” to solve bilateral problems.
Abe responded that he wanted to improve Japan’s relationship with South Korea, saying the two countries were important neighbors.
Ahead of the summit, Seoul and Tokyo had taken steps to ease tensions, which had spread from historical discord to economic and security matters.
In November, Seoul temporarily suspended the termination of a military information-sharing pact with Tokyo, partly under pressure from the US, which wanted Seoul to retain the accord. Washington sees the pact as a crucial tool for trilateral security cooperation with its two key Asian allies. Seoul earlier decided not to extend the accord unless Japan lifted export curbs it had imposed against South Korea in July.
Tokyo’s restrictions on exports of three key industrial materials to South Korea seemed to be a reprisal against last year’s rulings by the top court here, which ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans forced to work for them during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.
Last week, Tokyo eased some of its export restrictions. At the time, South Korea said the measure was not sufficient to settle the bilateral trade dispute.
During his summit with Abe, Moon called for the complete withdrawal of Tokyo’s export curbs, while describing last week’s measure as a goodwill gesture for a dialogue-based resolution of issues with Seoul.
It is notable that Abe hoped to solve the problem through consultations between export authorities from both sides, in a departure from his previous stance that lifting the restrictions depended entirely on changes in Seoul’s position.
In the first phase of restoring their ties, Seoul and Tokyo should return to the situation before July 1 -- when Tokyo toughened its export controls, prompting Seoul to counter by deciding to scrap the intelligence-sharing accord.
Seoul has set next March as the deadline for Tokyo to lift all export curbs and pave the way for South Korea to turn the temporary suspension of the military accord into a formal extension. The deadline may be more flexible but Tokyo should not delay the withdrawal of the export controls for too long.
Eventually, the resolution of the forced labor compensation issue will hold the key to fundamentally putting Seoul-Tokyo relations back on track.
During their summit, Moon and Abe reaffirmed differences in their views on the issue but agreed on the need to settle the matter through dialogue.
Last week, South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang and a dozen other lawmakers submitted a bill to establish a fund with contributions from companies and ordinary people in both countries to compensate forced labor victims.
The proposal has emerged as a plausible solution to the thorny issue but faces objections from victims and advocacy groups for them here and conservative forces in Japan.
Moon and Abe should have the courage to actively persuade opponents to accept a reasonable solution to the issue.
They need to place overall national interests ahead of pressure from their domestic political base and steer bilateral ties in a mutually beneficial direction.
Improved relations between South Korea and Japan are needed to bolster their slowing economies and cope with growing threats from North Korea to return to provocations amid stalled nuclear talks with the US. Better relations with Seoul will be all the more necessary for the Abe government ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The two countries should continue strenuous efforts to stop their future-oriented cooperation from being held hostage to their unfortunate shared history.