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On Saturday, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea agreed to hold formal peace talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in. Japan Times reported that the talks are set to take place in China during the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral meeting scheduled for next month. The summit was agreed upon during the G20 meetings in Nagoya after a series of conflicts sparked by a decades-long disagreement about compensation for South Korean laborers forced to work for Japanese firms during World War II led to trade disputes and uncertainty about the future of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).
Relations between Japan and South Korea have been strained since Japan’s colonization of Korea and the use of forced labor in Japanese firms during World War II. Ties between the two countries became more tense after a South Korean court ordered Japanese companies to compensate former forced laborers. Japanese officials argue that the issue was settled in 1965 when the countries restored diplomatic ties. Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi warned that the relationship would worsen if South Korea attempted to liquidate assets seized from Japanese companies. This political disagreement turned into a trade dispute after Japan removed South Korea from its ‘whitelist’ of countries that enjoyed simplified export procedures. South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-Wha expressed discontent with these export curbs because they have hurt South Korea’s chip industry which remains heavily reliant on specialized Japanese chemicals.
These disputes led to South Korea threatening to pull out of the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing deal. The GSOMIA allowed Japan and South Korea to share military secrets and counter mutual threats including those posed by North Korea’s nuclear capacity. At the last minute, South Korea decided to conditionally extend the agreement but warned that it could be “terminated” at any moment. Following this decision, Motegi and Kang agreed to arrange a summit in December to deescalate the mounting tensions that nearly led to the dissolution of the GSOMIA.
A South Korean official called the summit a “breakthrough” after months of escalating tensions and Motegi told reporters, “I aim to hold a candid exchange of views on the matter of laborers from the Korean peninsula, which is the core problem, and other bilateral issues.” At the same time, Kang also acknowledged that a large gap remains between the two countries over the issue of forced labor. Tobias Harris, an analyst for Teneo consultants expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the proposed talks pointing out that “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has signaled no shift in his government’s position on either the whitelist or the dispute over compensation for colonial-era forced labor that triggered this year’s crisis in bilateral relations.”
Washington has welcomed Seoul’s decision to renew the GSOMIA but also urged the two to “continue sincere discussions to ensure a lasting solution to historic issues.” A senior official at South Korea’s foreign ministry told Reuters that the decision on the information-sharing pact was the result of a three-way discussion that included the United States and asked Washington to play a “constructive role” in resolving issues with Japan at the December summit.
Despite these agreements, South Korea and Japan got into another dispute on Sunday after Japan rejected a South Korean complaint about the wording of the announcement of the December summit. South Korea accused Japan of changing the agreed timing of the talks and mischaracterizing South Korea’s position on the issue.
Though the renewal of the GSOMIA and the proposed peace talks are promising steps towards a closer relationship between Japan and South Korea, as long as both countries refuse to make compromises on the issue of compensation for forced labor, it is unlikely that substantial progress will be made at the summit. Continued disputes over things like the timing and wording of the summit announcement are also likely to decrease the possibility of a civil and productive discussion in December.