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Editorial: S. Korea comfort women ruling an opportunity for Japan to mend relations

South Korea's Seoul Central District Court dismissed a damages lawsuit on April 21 against the Japanese government brought by former "comfort women."

    The court recognized that it could not rule on the actions of another country by citing sovereign immunity; a decision in keeping with customary international law. The ruling was completely at odds with a January one by the same court that ordered the Japanese government to pay reparations.

    What deserves attention is that the court's decision this time included an assessment of the 2015 Japan-South Korea Comfort Women Agreement intended to resolve the issue of wartime comfort women.

    In that pact, the Japanese government recognized its responsibility and agreed to release funds for it. The establishment of a foundation for former comfort women is also a key part of the accord. It confirmed that Japan and South Korea will cooperate in promoting the foundation's projects.

    The latest ruling refers to the fact that many former comfort women and the families of those who have passed away have received money from the foundation, and recognized its work as a form of remedial action.

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in had earlier turned his back on the agreement, including by dissolving the foundation, but at a January press conference his stance had changed, and he acknowledged it is an "official agreement between governments."

    Both countries should use this ruling to return to the original point of the 2015 Japan-South Korea Comfort Women Agreement.

    The ruling also asserted that South Korea must aim to resolve issues with Japan, including diplomatic ones, with efforts both internal and external. The South Korean government should seriously accept this point.

    The situation now is the worst since Japan and South Korea normalized relations. Apart from the issue of comfort women, legal proceedings around issues of wartime forced labor are a major cause. In recent years, disagreement over wartime labor issues has had negative effects even on trade and in security fields.

    The discord between Japan and South Korea is remarkably emotional, and it has not been possible to create a space for calm dialogue. South Korea's foreign minister changed in February, but Japan's Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi is still yet to hold even telephone talks with his counterpart.

    Northeastern Asia is seeing rapid changes amid the backdrop of the U.S.-China row. For stability in the region, Japanese and South Korean cooperation is indispensable.

    There is also a growing sense of uncertainty concerning North Korea. To strengthen the foundational cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. in responding to the issue, Japan-South Korea relations are vital.

    Tokyo and Seoul should take this ruling as an opportunity to act toward improving relations.

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