Of all the pending issues facing the new administration, none requires as urgent measures and new thinking as ROK-Japan relations. The reason for their urgency is that a window of opportunity to improve both nations’ relationships is likely to be soon closed. The process ready for immediate cashing of the Japanese companies’ assets seized under the court decision on requisition is now proceeding. Once these are cashed, Japan is supposed to apply retaliatory measures. Then, Korea will be unable to avoid taking any actions as well. If this situation occurs, circumstances between the two would change so suddenly that any discussions on solutions would be unavailable. The cashing may be carried out at anytime.
The reason for the necessity of new thinking is that it has become clear that the requisition issue cannot be solved by such a principle-based approach as to pursue a conclusion through a mutual concession of both sides. Japan maintains a consistent stance that Korea should settle this issue and abide by the agreement based on international law because its domestic judgment was against that between both nations. Unless the new administration adopts an innovative way of thinking, any arguments on requisition one would turn out fruitless. At present, Japan seems to have a half expectations and half concerns for their will for settlement.
Under such conditions, Korea needs to have a hasty approach focusing on the solution to the problems beyond the principle. Among all of them, the requisition is the first to be solved. This requires two tasks. First, the cashing process must be suspended. To accelerate a conclusion with this matter unsolved appears not only dangerous but insincere. Of course, finding how to stop a legal procedure of cash is not easy, but indispensable. Secondly, a way of rectifying a divergence between the domestic and international laws, which was caused by the judgment of the chancery, must be worked out. As long as this issue arose from the domestic judgment, there is no other way than for Korea’s make more efforts for its settlement.
In this regard, the previous administration presented proposals to put some the burdens on Japan by taking into account the judgment of the chancery. Japan rejected all of them. Meanwhile, more flexible ones have been discussed outside the administration. The representative ones are as follows:
1. Proceeding to the arbitration committee, a dispute-settlement procedure under the ROK-Japan agreement,
2. Proceeding to the International Court of Justice,
3. Korea provides compensation through legislation, e.g. Moon Hee-sang’s Proposal, and
4. Subrogation repayment that Korea temporarily provides compensation and later exercises the right of indemnification against Japan (apart from whether it will agree or not).
The purposes of all these are to seek a solution even by our carrying political burdens.
The reality is that proposals of only such levels may allow for substantive discussion. The question is, however, whether the government could make one of such choices. Considering Korea’s standpoint and its people’s sentiment so far, the new administration may have difficulty in coming to any of these decisions and is highly likely to choose to share burdens with Japan as the prior one did. If this happens, Japan is sure to object, insisting nothing has changed. This is a dilemma indeed.
Then, are there any ideas that help the government confront the dilemma to find a solution, halt the cashing process at the same time, and improve the environment for negotiations? The answer is not necessarily “No.” There is a method that is to operate a bipartisan private eminent person group and ask them to look for a solution. The government should organize such a group, pledge to follow its solution, and additionally set its operation period too, for example, 100 days, during which the related parties are required to cooperate on their refraining from additional actions.
In this case, since a solution is devised through bipartisan public opinion, the government’s burdens will be reduced. If the government demands self-restraint along with setting up a special process, namely, the eminent person group, the effect of social pressure to stop cashing is expected to arise even without legal force. The cashing would be disrupted.
While the eminent person group is pursuing a solution, some activities to evoke constructive public opinion had better take place around it. It is necessary to create an argument that the worst ROK-Japan relations to be continued by compensation for requisition would adversely affect Korean national interests and also be unwise from the perspective of comparison in benefit. Victims should be saved in another way and opinions in favor of settling the ROK-Japan issues should be disseminated. “The ROK-Japan vision forum” which has contributed to the improvement of bilateral relations these several years would also be able to play a role in the process of turning these viewpoints into public opinion.
Japan will appreciate such a movement inside Korea. Since I first submitted a proposal of forming an eminent person group in 2019, Japanese officials have shown positive responses. There were also good reactions from the US. Yoichi Funabashi, the former chief editor of the Asahi Shimbun, and Michael Green, Vice President of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) expressed their positive feelings about this proposal of mine in their interviews and contributions. Launching such a group would improve the atmosphere of negotiation between both sides. Japan’s flexible reaction is also expected. The US is sure to welcome this as well.
Of course, some are afraid that Korea would make too many compromises with the requisition issue. However, we also consider that this was settled by the agreement in 1965. What to emphasize is that if the ROK-Japan relations which have become the worst due to this issue are left unsolved, even greater damages would be constantly given to national interests.
This is the time to quickly switch to new ways of thinking by looking squarely and calmly at the reality that improvement of ROK and Japan relations provides the former with relatively greater benefits than the latter.
JoongAng Ilbo (May 11, 2022)