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Enter the envoys

July 23,2019
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President Moon Jae-in, center, and the leaders of five political parties head to a room in the Blue House last Thursday to discuss ways to deal with Japan’s economic retaliation to the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime forced labor. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
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Chun Young-gi
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu of the Bareunmirae Party made particularly noteworthy remarks when President Moon Jae-in and the leaders of five political parties met last week to counter Japan’s economic retaliations.

“I once protested the Korea-Japan talks,” Sohn said. “The current diplomatic row was caused by Japan, but we must also stop countering the situation with anti-American sentiment or nationalism. We should create an opportunity for Japan to shift direction.”

He proposed that a special envoy with expertise and authority should be sent to Japan to find a breakthrough and arrange a summit. He also urged the Moon Jae-in administration to first pay compensation to the forced labor victims and exercise the right to seek reimbursement from Japan later. The recommendations are very practical and reasonable and seem exceptional because Moon’s aides are acting unreasonably by labeling opinions they don’t agree with as “pro-Japan.”

It was constructive that the Blue House meeting of the president and politicians produced a joint announcement that urged both the governments of Korea and Japan to put effort into finding a diplomatic solution. Based on this agreement, Moon will be able to escape from the temptation offered by some of his associates who are instigating a nationalistic fight. Now, Moon also has a justification to approach the issue based on reciprocity as a state leader.

Because the resolution by the five parties is something that can rarely be accomplished in Japan’s political environment — where the ruling party has strong control — Moon must use it as a precious political resource.

We already have an experience showing that an exchange of special envoys and holding a summit are effective ways to form a friendship with a hostile country while avoiding the severance of diplomatic relations or war. Inter-Korean relations in 2018 are a good example.

In 1961, Korea and Japan exchanged Kim Jong-pil and Michisuke Sugi as special envoys and Park Chung Hee and Hayato Ikeda later held a summit. The 1961 summit was the starting point for negotiations between Korea and Japan to normalize their diplomatic relations. Following the deal between Kim and Masayoshi Ohira on the compensation issue — through which Japan provided some $300 million in grants and $200 million in long-term, low-interest loans — diplomatic ties were normalized on June 22, 1965.

With the settlement, Korea established the Pohang Iron and Steel Company. The rest was invested in building the Gyeongbu Highway and Soyang River Dam to rebuild the economy.

Thanks to the strategic spending of the money, Korea rose to become the 11th largest economy in the world only 70 years after the ruins of colonial rule and war, as Moon often tells the international community with pride.

We all know the history of blood and sweat. Kim Jong-pil was called a traitor because of his role in the negotiations with Japan, but he still openly persuaded Korean university students and later traveled overseas to avoid criticism. Later, he recalled in his memoir that the settlement funds were the blood-ridden money of the country. If Korea had given the money to individuals or built facilities such as resorts like in the Philippines and Indonesia, the opportunity for our economic leap would have been lost.

After the country’s economic power grew rapidly, the Korean government then compensated the individual victims in 1975 and 2007, including conscripted laborers.

During last week’s meeting at the Blue House, Sohn said that the Korean government should first pay compensations to the forced labor victims based on the 2018 Supreme Court ruling and later engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Japanese government for reimbursement. He added that it is like an egg of Columbus, which has taken into account both bilateral treaties and the history of Korea.

A businessman — trusted by both Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — should be sent as Korea’s special envoy to Tokyo. Abe also should send a similar-level of special envoy to Korea to settle the key issues and then the two leaders must have a summit.

It took just 18 days in 1961 for Seoul and Tokyo to exchange special envoys and have a summit. There is still time left for the two countries to avoid a clash.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 22, Page 30