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Editorial: Japanese, S. Korean leaders should stay calm as conflict intensifies

Tensions between Japan and South Korea have been intensifying recently since Tokyo stiffened its export controls on Seoul. At a working-level meeting, South Korea demanded that Japan retract the restrictions. The two countries remained far apart as Tokyo flatly rejected its neighbor's claim.

Concerns have been raised that mutual distrust between Japan and South Korea will deepen and bilateral ties will further deteriorate.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bitterly criticized South Korea at a debate session before and during campaigning for the July 21 House of Councillors election and on other occasions, describing South Korea as "a country that can't abide by international conventions" and "one that can't keep promises with other countries."

Specifically, the prime minister is criticizing Seoul for pressing Japan to accept the South Korean Supreme Court's rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to wartime forced workers even though the issue of compensation has been settled under a 1965 bilateral accord. His remarks also appear to reflect his displeasure at Seoul's unilateral disbandment of a foundation to support former wartime "comfort women" that had been established under a bilateral agreement.

South Korea's responses to these issues were certainly problematic. Still, one cannot help but wonder whether labeling South Korea as "a country that breaks promises" will contribute to a solution to bilateral problems.

Moreover, South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned that Tokyo's stiffening of export controls "will eventually cause more damage to the Japanese economy" than South Korea, as if to intimidate Japan. Under these circumstances, no one can expect the two countries to hold constructive dialogue.

Moon also stated, "We'll overcome the difficulties we face now just as everyone joined hands to surmount economic crises in the past," showing no consideration to Japan. It is regrettable that Moon, while suggesting that Seoul can reconsider measures to settle the issue of wartime forced labor, shifted the blame for the failure to settle the matter to Japan by claiming that Tokyo has refused to hold consultations on the issue.

The cause of friction between the neighboring countries lies in how to interpret rules and historical perceptions. In the 21st century when the economic might of South Korea has become close to that of Japan, a growing sense of rivalry between the two countries tends to intensify bilateral conflicts.

It is the role of diplomacy to search for common ground while pursuing long-term benefits. However, if the two leaders are proactively provoking nationalism, no diplomatic solution can be achieved. In fact, national sentiment in both countries would only worsen.

July 18 is the deadline for procedures to set up an arbitration panel on the forced labor issue, which Tokyo requested under the bilateral agreement on issues relating to compensation. South Korea is poised to reject the request. Since an arbitration process will unlikely be initiated, it could reignite the exchange of criticism between the two countries. The leaders of Japan and South Korea should exercise self-restraint in their comments on bilateral issues.

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