A South Korean flag hangs alongside a banner that reads "Boycott Japan" over a street in central Seoul last August. Photo: AFP

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Well, they buried the hatchet – and not in each other’s heads.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in – two men who have been at daggers drawn throughout 2019 – met in Chengdu today, on the sidelines of a trilateral summit hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Seoul and Tokyo are engaged in a complex and highly contentious dispute that merges history, historiography, prior bilateral agreements, compensation, trade and even security. Their meeting this afternoon was their first formal summit in 15 months – a period during which bilateral relations have plunged to possibly their lowest ebb since the two capitals initiated diplomatic relations in 1965.

Early indications are that the two recognize the need to reset relations and cool heads.

“The two countries … are important to each other,” Abe said, according to a read-out of their conversation sent to foreign reporters. “And in North Korea and other security issues, cooperation between Japan and South Korea, Japan, South Korea, and the United States is very important. I also want to continue to improve the important work and relations between Korea and Japan.”

“Japan and Korea are geographically, historically and culturally closest neighbors and partners in prosperity that are very important in trade and human exchange,” Moon said in response. “We hope that we will continue economic and cultural cooperation, including exchanges of people, and we will continue to cooperate in peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.”

Casus Belli

Seoul and Tokyo have long been at odds with each other. Among Tokyo’s wartime victims, Seoul is far and away the most vocal when it comes to accusing the former Imperial power of whitewashing its often-brutal colonial behavior and its practices during the Pacific War. Seoul also accuses Tokyo of failing to display sincerity in post-war apologies.

Tokyo, for its part, has deployed compensation and delivered scores of apologies, but displays exasperation when Korea continues to harp on the issues. The two also spar over the ownership of a pair of islets in the Sea of Japan – which Korea calls the East Sea.

Since the leftist Moon took office across from the rightist Abe in 2017, relations have plunged to new lows. They have also spilled beyond the historical/diplomatic space into the security and trade spheres.

In 2017, Moon unilaterally dismantled a compensation package agreed between his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and Abe in 2015 that had accompanied an apology from Abe and been designed to end bilateral sparring over “comfort women” once and for all. Instead, Moon demanded a new apology from Abe.

Tensions simmered further after Seoul ordered a Japanese warship at a South Korean navel review to strike its “Rising Sun” ensign – a symbol which, in recent years, Koreans have compared to the Nazi swastika while demanding it be banned. The vessel departed. And a South Korean warship on the high seas apparently locked on a Japanese patrol aircraft with its target radar.

However, the deciding issue was when, in October 2018, Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese firms with operations in South Korea to compensate wartime forced laborers. Tokyo complained that the forced-labor matter had been resolved in a 1965 agreement and compensation package, accusing Seoul of breaking international law.

In apparent response, Tokyo slapped export restrictions on three key chemicals required by Korean electronics manufacturers, and removed Seoul from a list of preferential export destinations.

As furious Korean consumers boycotted Japanese products, Seoul responded in kind, then withdrew from an intelligence sharing pact with Japan. It also registered a complaint with the International Olympic Committee, demanding that the “Rising Sun” symbol be  barred from the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

The escalating dispute alarmed Washington, which seeks a united front in Northeast Asia, and which has dispatched a number of envoys to both capitals. There have been recent signs of a thaw.

Japan has been permitting exports of the chemicals, albeit with the requirement of more paperwork. Last month, Seoul reversed its previous course and agreed to retain the intelligence pact. And last week, Tokyo lifted the restrictions on one of the chemicals.

Minds meet, or…?

During their meeting, Moon suggested establishing speedy working-level consultations on the trade matter, according to Yonhap news, which cited pool reporters in Chengdu.

On the central issue of compensation for Korean forced laborers, the leaders confirmed their differences. However, they agreed to resolve the matter through dialogue, Yonhap reported.

Yonhap also noted that the  meeting had been scheduled for 30 minutes, but extended to 50.

South Korean lawmakers have recently called for a compensation package combining donations from both Korean and Japanese firms to be established.

Heavy lifting appears to be ahead for the two sides’ working-level negotiators.

Prior to departing for China, Abe had reiterated that South Korea should keep promises made between states. “As I plan to meet with President Moon, I will convey Japan’s stance on the issue of former workers from the Korean Peninsula among others,” he said, according to Kyodo news agency.

However, Seoul, citing division of powers, has repeatedly made clear that the administration has no mechanism to reverse a Supreme Court decision.

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