It has been over 20 years since Japan and South Korea promised to build a “future-oriented relationship” based on cooperation and historical reconciliation. This ambition has yet to be fully realized, as unresolved historical grievances continue to destabilize bilateral relations, intensifying through South Korea’s court rulings on wartime-era comfort women and forced labor. However, in a recent turn of events, a separate comfort women case has been dismissed based on the principle of sovereign immunity, much to Tokyo’s benefit. Additionally, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has indicated a renewed interest in historical engagement with Japan. These sudden developments present a strategic opportunity for Japan to foster cooperation with South Korea.
In his New Year’s press conference, Moon expressed concern over the court rulings, specifically stating that the comfort women ruling obstructed Seoul’s efforts toward diplomatic resolution with Tokyo. During his March 1 commemoration speech, he announced that South Korea is ready for historical rapprochement with Japan, walking back his previous opposition to the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement as a mechanism for resolution. In response to these developments, Tokyo stated that it is up to Seoul to produce “concrete proposals” to settle their disputes. Even after the rejection of the recent comfort women case, the Japanese government’s stance remains the same. Rather than writing off these events, it is crucial that Japan seizes this as an avenue for cooperation, in order to progress their relationship.
This article was originally published by The Diplomat on April 29, 2021.
Darlene Onuorah is a research intern with the Japan Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. She receives her M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University in May 2021.