(EDITORIAL from Korea JoongAng Daily on March 20)

President Yoon Suk Yeol had summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo last week. Former president Lee Myung-bak was the last head of state from Korea to visit Japan, in 2011. The breakthrough came after Yoon made a reconciliatory gesture by offering to remove the lofty stumbling block between the two countries by setting up a third-party fund to cover the damage claims over the wartime forced labor.

Seoul's initiative has helped set the stage for normalization in ties through the summit last week. Tokyo's removal of export curbs as a process to restore Korea onto the "whitelist" of its trade partners and the Gsomia military intelligence-sharing pact have put their ties back on the normal footing in July 2019, which is before their relationship soured from the Korean Supreme Court ruling in favor of direct compensation by Japanese companies for Korean survivors of the wartime forced labor.

But the gains from Tokyo cost a major political tradeoff for Yoon at home. His approval rating sank amid criticism over his "shameful diplomatic concessions." The main opposition likened the president to Yi Wang-yong, the prime minister of late Joseon dynasty who illegally signed a treaty for Japan to annex Korea in 1910. How Tokyo would respond to Seoul's grand gesture during the summit talks attracted keen attention from Koreans back home.

Tokyo lifted the curbs on exports of wafer-making chemicals and materials, which Tokyo had enforced in retaliation for the top court's ruling four years ago. The removal of barriers will help widen the exchange sphere for the two countries. But Kishida stopped short of making a direct apology over past tragedies while "highly evaluating the Korean government's action," as he simply reiterated the will to accept the "history awareness" of Japan's past Cabinets.

Japan also made it clear that Japanese companies accused of wartime forced labor — Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — won't be joining the compensation fund led by Korea. Due to the lingering differences, the two leaders simply spoke of their positions instead of issuing a joint declaration after their meetings. The gulf suggests the two governments have much work to do to iron out their differences.

A summit talk cannot solve the deep-seated conflict over past issues. But the meeting certainly has helped lay the grounds for their future-oriented relationship. To move forward, Tokyo must take sincere steps proactively. It needs to act to appease the agonies of the victims and persuade Japanese companies to join the compensation through a third party. Kishida must be willing to share some of the political burden of Yoon if Tokyo really wishes to sustain the hard-won momentum to improve ties.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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