South Korean President Moon Jae-in has proposed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the countries have talks among the two leaders’ close aides, rather than between diplomatic officials as before, to break the deadlock over the issue of South Koreans who were requisitioned workers during World War II demanding compensation, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned from a source close to the Japanese government.
According to the source, Moon made this suggestion to Abe, saying that “a variety of options” are possible for the purpose, when they had an 11-minute conversation in the waiting room for state leaders attending a summit meeting related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok on Monday morning. The two leaders spoke, with only interpreters present, about issues including the requisitioned workers.
Abe pointed to the importance of the relationship between the two nations, and reiterated that the requisitioned workers issue has already been settled by the 1965 bilateral Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation, saying, “Japan’s position is as I have already told you.” Abe also called for continued dialogue between the two countries, apparently with discussions between diplomatic officials in mind.
‘A variety of options’
Moon replied: “Japan’s position is understandable. What we have mentioned is not every [possible solution], and a variety of options are possible. We want to continue talking.”
Moon suggested a plan to designate high-ranking officials in the presidential palace as South Korea’s window for dialogue, the source said.
Monday’s 11-minute conversation between the two leaders took place at Moon’s request. However, it is unclear whether the latest conversation will become the first step towards improving bilateral ties.
According to the South Korean presidential office, Moon asked Abe to have a seat and talk together when he greeted Abe at a summit related to ASEAN. Usually, meetings and talks that are arranged in advance are also attended by senior government officials and interpreters in charge of Japan-South Korea relations. However, for the latest conversation, neither government made such preparations and the two leaders were accompanied only by their respective English-language interpreters.
Neither the Japanese nor the South Korean government regards the latest conversation as a formal meeting. Tokyo explained that Abe exchanged words with Moon, while Seoul said that Moon had a “one-on-one, impromptu meeting” with Abe. However, announcements separately issued by Japan and South Korea suggest their respective behind-the-scenes motives.
The South Korean presidential office announced that the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of the two countries’ ties and the principle of resolving pending issues between them through dialogue, and evaluated the encounter as the two leaders having a conversation in a “very friendly and earnest atmosphere.”
Many believe that South Korea emphasized the positive nature of the dialogue mainly out of consideration for the United States.
Since South Korea has been strongly asked by the United States to maintain the Japan-South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which South Korea decided to abolish on Aug. 22, Seoul wanted to show Washington that it has a dialogue-oriented attitude towards Japan. With the approval rating for Moon’s administration declining, it is widely viewed that the South Korean government, facing problems at home and abroad, does not want to further worsen ties with Japan, according to a high-ranking Japanese government official.
No change in position
On the other hand, Japan did not announce points the two leaders reaffirmed, and said that Abe firmly conveyed Japan’s basic stance to Moon, indicating that there is no change in the situation surrounding the pending issues between the two countries. “Since it is not good for Japan to be seen as always refusing dialogues, Abe accepted the request,” a source close to the Japanese government said.
On the sidelines of a trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea to be held in late December in China, a bilateral summit meeting between Japan and South Korea is also expected to take place. However, the Japanese side has not changed its position, saying that the ball is now in South Korea’s court, and it will continue to closely watch South Korea’s concrete measures.