Japan, South Korea hint at defrosting relations

‘River continues to flow’ beneath the ice . . . 

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s visit to Japan for the imperial enthronement ceremony Thursday – where he met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo – had heightened expectations for a breakthrough in the tensions dividing the two Asian powers. In their brief 20-minute discussion, however, each maintained their original stance: Abe reiterated that South Korea was “breaching” international law with its recent Supreme Court ruling, while Lee said that Seoul has not violated their 1965 economic co-operation pact. Lee proposed a bilateral summit between Abe and Moon, but neither side committed. Abe did acknowledge that “the situation cannot stay this way,” shifting from his hard-line stance, while Lee told reporters that “the river continues to flow underneath ice.”

Recap: the Seoul-Tokyo spat . . .

The current spat began when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate forced wartime Korean labourers. Tokyo claims that the ruling is a breach of the 1965 agreement, while Seoul insists that it could not overturn a decision made by the court, citing the separation of powers. Subsequently, Abe escalated the conflict by imposing export bans and excluding South Korea from its preferred trading partners list, which was responded in kind by Seoul. South Korea then decided not to extend the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which has facilitated intelligence sharing between the two countries on North Korea.

What’s next?

The meeting led to no major breakthrough, and Japan’s cabinet representative held a press conference to repeat the current stance that the South Korean court ruling violated international law. Abe, however, has definitely shown a shift in tone. A South Korean analyst suggested that there is a greater urgency for both Seoul and Tokyo to find a solution prior to the conclusion of GSOMIA on November 22. Both Abe and Moon are likely to attend the ASEAN and APEC summits in November, and some progress could be made if the two leaders meet.