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Tokyo, Seoul growing further apart over thorny issues

South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds his New Year press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 10, 2019. (Jung Yeon-je/Pool Photo via AP)

SEOUL/TOKYO -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's criticism of Japan at a New Year press conference over Tokyo's response to sticky bilateral issues, such as wartime forced labor, has further widened the perception gap between the two countries.

While underscoring the need for both countries to cooperate in settling these issues, Moon criticized Japan for worsening the problems. On the other hand, Tokyo has complained that the Moon administration has failed to step up to the plate and manage bilateral relations.

The president made no mention of bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea during his opening remarks at the Jan. 10 news conference while devoting 90 percent of his speech to improvements of the country's domestic economy.

A question posed by a Japanese reporter of public broadcaster NHK about the issue of wartime forced labor appeared to come as a surprise to Moon.

Recent Supreme Court rulings determined that the right of victims to seek compensation for forced mobilization under Japan's colonial rule before the end of World War II was still valid because it is outside the scope of a redress agreement attached to the 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized ties between Japan and South Korea.

Moon attributed "unfortunate history" to the fact that the issue of the right to demand compensation over Japan's colonial rule continues to be smoldering despite the bilateral pact.

The president then complained that Japanese leaders have politicized the matter instead of squarely facing the issue in a humble manner.

Those in and close to the president's Blue House office are of the view that the issue of compensation for forced labor that has emerged recently is rooted in Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

As the top court has ordered Japanese firms to compensate former forced workers since last October, South Korea faces difficulties in politically settling the issue while respecting these rulings in accordance with the principle of independence of legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government.

Under these circumstances, the South Korean leader's frustrations unexpectedly surfaced during the New Year press conference as Moon believes that Japan created the root of the problem and it should cooperate in settling the matter.

However, Seoul also wants to avert a diplomatic war with Tokyo as its domestic economy is slumping. While leaning toward agreeing to hold inter-governmental talks with Japan on the redress issue, the Moon administration is apparently trying to buy time.

"As the Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is going on the offensive by politicizing bilateral matters, we shouldn't easily comply with Japan's request for talks now," said a diplomatic adviser to the Moon government.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon and other top government officials began more than two months ago to consider how to respond to the top court's decision, but their work has been suspended.

"The prime minister's office can't coordinate views on the matter that involves the interests of so many parties, and it's been decided that the Blue House should handle the issue," said an individual linked to South Korea's ruling party.

The South Korean government is taking time to consider the issue as an investigation is underway into alleged collusion between the Foreign Ministry under the administration of former President Park Geun-hye and the Supreme Court over delaying rulings on lawsuits over forced labor. Therefore, Seoul cannot make easy compromise with Japan in diplomatic talks over the issue.

Depending on the development of the investigation into the case, calls for a review of a bilateral agreement in 2015, which is meant to be "a final and irreversible resolution" of the wartime "comfort women" issue, could be rekindled.

Moon is expected to restructure his country's policy toward Japan while paying close attention to domestic public opinion.

Japan, for its part, reacted sharply to Moon's criticism over the wartime forced labor issue during the news conference, without mentioning bilateral talks that Japan has requested.

Masahisa Sato, state minister for foreign affairs who is the second-in-command in the Foreign Ministry, criticized President Moon on his Twitter account for "not only failing to respond to our request for consultations but also refusing to squarely face the facts."

Fumio Kishida, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party Policy Research Council, urged Seoul to abide by the bilateral redress accord that settled the compensation issue for good, at least in Japan's view. "International treaties (including the redress agreement) bind their parties. South Korea has the responsibility to rectify a state of violation of international law," Kishida, who previously served as foreign minister, told reporters.

There are numerous problems involving bilateral ties, including Seoul's decision to dissolve a foundation set up by South Korea with Japanese government funding to compensate former comfort women, and Japan's disclosure of the lock-on of fire-control radar by a South Korean destroyer on a Japanese patrol plane.

Since this year marks the centennial of the March 1 Movement, a large-scale independence drive during Japan's colonial rule, anti-Japan sentiment is likely to intensify in South Korea.

The approval ratings for the Moon government have declined to the 40 percent level. "Generally speaking, South Korea intensifies its criticism of Japan when the approval ratings for the government decline," said a senior Foreign Ministry official. "It's a domestic issue in that country."

(Japanese original by Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau; and Shinichi Akiyama and Shinya Hamanaka, Political News Department)

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