(News Focus) Moon keeps firm hand on two-track approach to Japan despite historic spat

By Kim Eun-jung and Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, 10 Feb. (Yonhap) — Despite a new historic spat with Japan, President Moon Jae-in is steadfast in his two-pronged approach in Tokyo, marked by toughness on colonial-era issues and flexibility on practical cooperation.

In a recent write-in interview with Yonhap News Agency and seven other news agencies, Moon called Japan’s push for the UNESCO heritage designation of a mine linked to forced labor in times of war “baffling”. war, but held out hope for cooperation on “future tasks”.

Moon’s remarks come as US President Joe Biden’s administration struggles to rebuild regional alliances to confront an intransigent North Korea and assertive China.

“It’s troubling at a time when we should be addressing issues related to our history and seeking to develop forward-looking relationships,” Moon said in his first public comment on Japan’s willingness to list the mine. Island of Sado associated with Korean forced laborers as Unesco Heritage.

Moon added, “Korea and Japan are the closest neighboring countries that should work together not only for bilateral relations but also for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world.”

Diplomatic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo have run deep since 2019, when Japan imposed a set of export restrictions against South Korea in a move seen as economic retaliation for South Korean court rulings against Japanese companies. involved in forced labor during Japanese colonial rule from 1910-1945.

Tokyo’s ongoing heritage bid has added to a litany of thorny issues between the two countries, including Japan’s claims to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo, its wartime sex slavery and its planned discharge of contaminated nuclear power plant water into the ocean.

The latest battle around the Sado mine – where as many as 2,000 Koreans are believed to have been mobilized to work against their will – was particularly shocking as it put a damper on Seoul’s so far unsuccessful reparations efforts with Tokyo.

Japan claimed that all colonial-era issues were settled with the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations. Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has repeated Tokyo’s mantra: Seoul should first find “acceptable” solutions to the problem.

In the interview, Moon reaffirmed his openness to “any proposal” to resolve the historic issue “through dialogue,” while emphasizing the need for Japan to show “an attitude and mindset sincere to history”.

“In order to solve this problem, a solution must be acceptable to the victims, which is also an established principle in the international community,” he said.

But his remarks appeared to have focused evenly on the need for future cooperation with Japan.

“There is a growing need to strengthen cooperation between Korea and Japan to deal with future tasks,” he said. “Our position remains unchanged: we are always open to communication with the Japanese Prime Minister.”

The two-pronged approach proved to be easier said than done. Affected by deep historical antagonisms as well as political and other variables, the approach has made little progress.

However, the recent spate of missile launches from the North, including those capable of hitting Japan, has led to a growing sense that Seoul, Washington and Tokyo should form a united front against Pyongyang’s military adventurism.

Still, skepticism persists about the prospects for a turnaround in relations between Seoul and Tokyo, as political events like South Korea’s March presidential election and Japan’s upper house parliamentary election in July could stand in the way.

Kishida, a former foreign minister seen as relatively moderate, acknowledged the need for closer ties with Seoul to counter northern security threats with the United States, but his cabinet continued with the legacy push amid mounting pressure from his Conservative party. liners.

Observers said the Biden administration could play a role in putting its two Asian allies on a path of reconciliation and cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as security, supply chain and change. climatic.

“The Biden administration has focused on its diplomatic capital to strengthen cooperation with South Korea and Japan and improve Seoul-Tokyo relations, which deteriorated under the former Trump administration,” Jo Yang said. hyeon, professor at Korea National. Diplomatic Academy, said.

“You have to see how Biden’s diplomacy can affect relations between South Korea and Japan at a time of political transition in the two countries,” he said.

South Korea, the United States and Japan are expected to hold tripartite ministerial talks in Hawaii this weekend to discuss joint efforts to defuse tensions on the peninsula. One wonders if they could form a united front amid historic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.

Consultations are underway to arrange a bilateral meeting with Seoul and Tokyo on this occasion, but it has not yet been confirmed, according to informed sources.

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