By Kang Seung-woo
A rapprochement between Korea and Japan is unlikely anytime soon as Tokyo still stands firm against Seoul's liquidation process of Korean assets of Japanese companies over wartime forced labor issues, according to a diplomatic source, Friday.
In addition, the Japanese government's plan to release radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the sea in the near future could further strain their bilateral relations.
Relations between the neighboring countries have slumped to the worst level in years, sparked by Japan's imposition of export controls on three key materials critical for Korea's semiconductor and display industries in apparent retaliation for a ruling by Korea's Supreme Court ordering Japanese companies to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor.
Given that the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden wants Washington's two Asian allies to patch things up for a closer-knit alliance network for regional security, the Moon Jae-in administration has launched its bid to mend diplomatic fences by sending his National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won earlier this month for discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on normalizing bilateral ties ― the first high-level talks between the two sides since Suga took office as prime minister in September. Plus, a group of Korean lawmakers also met the Japanese leader last week.
However, the diplomatic source said the Suga Cabinet believes its ties with the Moon government cannot be restored without Korea's promise that the seized assets of Japanese companies would not be sold off.
In line with the stance, the Japanese government is not likely to attend a trilateral summit between Korea, China and Japan, which Seoul is slated to host within this year, without concessions from Korea, the source noted, out of concerns that Suga may lose his political clout if he participates in the summit but the liquidation occurs afterward.
In addition, with the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics at stake due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Korean government hopes that its cooperation with Japan on holding the quadrennial sporting festival will contribute to improved bilateral relations, but the Japanese side is said to believe that such a one-off event has more disadvantages than advantages.
Diplomatic experts concurred that the ball is now in Korea's court for mending fences with Japan.
"The Japanese government's position on the forced labor issue remains clear-cut; in other words, the Korean government should make a concession on the matter," said Lee Won-deog, a professor at Kookmin University.
"Given that Japan is determined not to budge an inch regarding the issue, Korea needs to step up efforts to get the icy relations back on track."
Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, also said, "Should the liquidation occur, the bilateral ties will be pushed to the brink."
In diplomatic circles, a special legislation on the issue is considered the best available option that can offer a comprehensive solution and prevent this issue from reoccurring in the end. Japan claims that the issue was settled under the 1965 pact between the two nations for normalization of ties, in which Korea received grants and economic cooperation loans.
"Japan wants Korea to make a special law to stop reoccurrence of the issue and coincidently, ruling party lawmakers are trying to do something for the normalization of relations," Park said.
In the previous 20th National Assembly, the so-called "Moon Hee-sang proposal" ― named after then Assembly speaker ― was made to create a foundation to be funded by the involved companies, the two governments and citizens of Korea and Japan, to support the forced labor victims, but it was scrapped with the end of the Assembly's term.
"I guess the government and the ruling party are seeking reconciliatory measures toward Japan," Park added.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Embassy to Korea said, also on Friday, its government will announce its plan to discharge the radioactive contaminated water soon, despite admitting that it is not capable of fully removing radioactive tritium.
In response to Japan's planned disposal, Korea has been seeking measures to stop the marine environment-threatening plan.
"We are aware of Korean citizens' concerns over the release, but we will dispose of water after removing most contaminants other than tritium. As for tritium, it will also meet international standards for release," an official from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul said during a media briefing.
Promising to work with Korea on the monitoring of the radioactive water, the official said, "We are a sovereign country and can make our own decisions on the release."
"This issue can also affect bilateral ties," Park said. "However, the development of the radioactive issue will depend on how the relations between Korea and Japan will make a progress. If bilateral ties improve, the Korean government is not likely to take issue with the release."