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Diplomatic solution is key (KOR)

July 30,2019
Nearly a month has passed since Japan embarked on economic retaliations for the Korean Supreme Court’s rulings on wartime forced labor. In the meantime, the discord has deepened, as seen in Tokyo’s refusal to negotiate and average Koreans’ boycott of Japanese products. On Friday, Japan may remove Korea from a so-called “white list” of 27 countries eligible for preferential treatment in trade. The Sankei Shimbun reported that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will avoid a face-to-face meeting with President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of multilateral meetings coming up, including the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September, unless Seoul shows a “constructive reaction” to the issue.

In such a tense situation, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha’s telephone conversation last Friday with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono offers a glimmer of hope. As both foreign ministers are attending the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Bangkok starting on Friday, they could help resolve the diplomatic row if they have a bilateral meeting on the sidelines. As we can hardly look forward to a summit between Moon and Abe or the dispatch of a special envoy in the near future, a face-to-face meeting between the foreign ministers could hopefully turn the tide.

First of all, both sides should take a step back. On Japan’s part, it must cancel a plan to remove Korea from the list of countries eligible for special treatment in trade or at least postpone it. Japanese media reported that Tokyo will make the decision in a cabinet meeting on Friday, which coincides with the opening day of the ARF in Bangkok. If the Abe government decides to strip Korea of its preferential trade status, it will only fuel anti-Japanese sentiment among Koreans. If Japan takes that path, even a foreign ministers’ meeting could hardly help.

The Moon administration also must take a forward-looking approach to the row instead of reiterating that it cannot meddle in a judicial ruling. Eight months after the court’s ruling, Seoul proposed to resolve the conflict over compensation for forced workers during World War II through donations from companies involved. Tokyo rejected that idea.

It is not easy to find a solution that includes both the Supreme Court rulings and Tokyo’s position that the problem was addressed through the 1965 Basic Treaty. Nevertheless, both countries must cut through the Gordian knot. The two foreign ministers must have a meeting on the sidelines of the ARF to find a solution before it is too late.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, Page 30