South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has continued its diplomatic overtures to the Japanese government after sending National Intelligence Service (NIS) director Park Jie-won to Tokyo for talks with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other senior leaders earlier this month. Park’s visit was followed by a delegation of legislators, who met with Suga and some of their counterparts from the Japanese Diet. Japanese media outlets have reported that Suh Hoon, Moon’s national security advisor, could visit Tokyo soon as well.
However, it remains unlikely that these talks will resolve the dispute over compensation for colonial-era forced laborers that triggered Japanese trade sanctions after Korean courts seized Japanese business assets. Instead, Seoul’s overtures may be aimed less at resolving the dispute – notwithstanding reports that the Moon administration has proposed, for example, to compensate Japanese defendants for their payments to Korean plaintiffs – than at securing Japanese support for using next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo to boost diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In this vein, Seoul has reportedly floated a proposal to “freeze” the forced labor dispute until the Olympics. Meanwhile, Kim Jin-pyo, a Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) lawmaker who was part of the delegation to Tokyo this month, reported after the trip that Japanese officials told him that if the North Korean leader wanted to attend, the Japanese organizing committee could extend an invitation. Moon may be hoping to use the Tokyo games to launch another round of regional diplomacy with Pyongyang.
But while Suga has stated that he is willing to meet with Kim without preconditions in order to resolve issues regarding the fate of abducted Japanese citizens, Tokyo denied Kim Jin-pyo’s account, suggesting that talk of Kim Jong Un’s attendance is “premature.” More significantly, the Suga administration appears entirely uninterested in Seoul’s proposal to freeze the forced labor dispute, particularly since it is unclear whether a freeze would stop Korean district courts from moving ahead with the liquidation of assets seized from Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The district courts will move to the next phase in the liquidation process against the two companies on 9 December and 30 December. Other cases are working their way through the courts. Machine tools maker Nachi-Fujikoshi has already been ordered to compensate plaintiffs but no assets have been seized yet. Another three cases are currently before the Supreme Court and more than 20 are before district courts.
The sheer number of lawsuits against Japanese companies suggests that it will be difficult to sidestep the clash of principles at the heart of the dispute, and therefore even a short-term truce will be difficult. The Suga administration is unwilling to compromise on the sanctity of the 1965 basic treaty – which declared all financial issues related to the colonial period resolved – and is prepared to retaliate if and when asset sales proceed. The Moon administration is unwilling to intervene in the court system and generally wants Japan to accept responsibility and apologize sincerely. For the time being, in the near term it is still more likely that a court decision to sell seized assets triggers another round of tit-for-tat punishments than that the two governments find a settlement that satisfies both and is acceptable to their respective constituencies.