+ A

Unneighborly behavior

June 26,2019
The possibility of a long awaited Korea-Japan summit on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Osaka, Japan, seems to have vanished. A Blue House official made it official. “We are ready to meet, but Japan appears to be unprepared,” he said. Earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe basically refused to have a bilateral summit citing his “tight schedule as the host of the G-20 Summit.” The Blue House also reacted tersely, pointing to “President Moon Jae-in’s busy schedules for bilateral summits.” But Korea has more to lose if the summit is not held.

A summit could have offered an opportunity to thaw out distinctly chilly relations between Seoul and Tokyo. But obviously all efforts to arrange one came to naught except a reconfirmation of the deep gulf between the two countries over the past.

It is not normal for a head of state’s request to meet with a neighboring country’s leader to be rejected — particularly when the neighbor is the host of the G-20 Summit. The two countries are confronting many challenges ranging from conflicts over compensation for forced labor during colonial days to the North Korean nuclear threat. In an alarming development, Korea is poised to execute its court’s order for Japanese companies to compensate Korean workers for their forced labor after surviving victims’ request to sell assets of related Japanese companies in Korea for cash was accepted.

If Korean authorities really implement the court’s order, the cash — 100 million won ($86,528) per victim — will be put into their hands. In that case, the hardline Shinzo Abe government will most likely take retaliatory actions. In response, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha vowed to take retaliatory steps against Japan. If this continues, it could lead to a cessation of diplomatic relations.

Their leaders must take responsibility for this grim situation. We cannot rule out the possibility of both governments trying to take advantage of worsened ties for their domestic gains — for Abe to garner support for his Liberal Democratic Party ahead of an Upper House election in July and for Moon to divert public attention from economic failures.

While Korea and Japan are on a collision course, Japan and China are getting closer by leaving behind their conflicts. Abe is expected to invite Chinese President Xi Jinping to a state visit to Japan next spring. Under such circumstances, Korea could become the odd man out in Northeast Asia. It must not ignore the significance of Japan. Moon must hold a summit with Abe as soon as possible to break the diplomatic deadlock.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 26, Page 30