|President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe / Korea Times file|
Tensions simmering on dispute over Korea's G7 participation
By Kang Seung-woo
The rift between Korea and Japan, caused by court-ordered compensation for wartime forced laborers and other history-related issues, is showing no signs of closing as bilateral tensions are running high in more sectors, with the two sides engaging in full-on tit-for-tat spats.
Since July last year when the Japanese government imposed restriction on exports of three key industrial materials critical for Korea's chip and display industries in apparent retaliation over the forced labor rulings by Korea's Supreme Court, relations have remained at their lowest ebb in years.
While dismissing Seoul's repeated requests to lift the ban, Tokyo recently ruffled Korea's feathers by voicing its opposition to the neighboring country's participation in a G7 meeting ― a plan devised by U.S. President Donald Trump to expand the current format to either a G11 or G12 one in order to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region.
According to a Kyodo News report, Sunday, a senior Japanese government official expressed Tokyo's objection to the expansion plan to the U.S.; and a day later, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also stressed the importance of maintaining the current G7 framework.
In response, Cheong Wa Dae struck back, saying Japan has "the world's highest level of shamelessness" and was accustomed to "harming" a neighboring country."
In addition, President Moon Jae-in told a weekly meeting of senior aides Monday that the nation has successfully dealt with the sudden export curbs, turning the misfortune to its advantage ― an indication that his administration will not hurry efforts to remove the trade restrictions, at least for the time being.
Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee is running for the director-general position of the World Trade Organization (WTO), but Japan is expected to emerge as a stumbling block in her bid for the top job.
Although the Japanese government has refrained from publicly expressing opposition to Yoo, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters last week that the next WTO director-general needs to "have the ability to coordinate the interests of major countries."
Such a reaction from Japan has come after Korea refiled a complaint with the WTO earlier due to Tokyo's lukewarm response to Seoul's request for talks on the export restrictions. The WTO plans to decide next month whether to set up a panel to look into the case.
The appointment of the director-general is reached by a consensus among all WTO members, so the foreign ministry is exploring countermeasures to Japan's possible objection.
The two nations are also clashing with each other at UNESCO as Korea is seeking to remove Japanese historical sites from the World Heritage list.
According to the foreign ministry, the Japanese government promised in 2015 to acknowledge Korean victims forced to work at some of the UNESCO sites during World War II by establishing an information center at the request of the World Heritage Committee. But the recently opened facility only features exhibits celebrating the country's industrial accomplishments during the Meiji era, failing to keep the promise.
However, the Japanese foreign ministry claims that the country is fulfilling its commitments to UNESCO, describing Korea's criticism as unacceptable.
Diplomatic experts warn that unless the two sides reach an agreement on the planned liquidation of Japanese firms' assets for compensation to the forced labor victims, the source of the current conflict, their mutual hostility may further deepen as Tokyo has warned of retaliatory measures.
Earlier this month, the Pohang branch of Daegu District Court began the process of liquidating the Korean assets of Japanese steelmakers Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. which benefitted from the use of forced labor during WWII and ignored the court order. Should there be no response from the companies by Aug. 4, the court can order the sale of the assets here.
"The issue can only be solved by Cheong Wa Dae and the Japanese Prime Minister's Office. However, they're playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first, reducing the possibility of negotiations on the matter," said Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University.
"I believe that the best solution to the thorny issue is a proposal by former National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, which could satisfy both the Korean and Japanese governments. Other than this, there is no other available option that can be accepted by Japan."
The so-called "Moon Hee-sang proposal" meant creating a foundation to be funded by the involved companies, and the governments and citizens of Korea and Japan, to support the forced labor victims. But this was scrapped with the expiration of the 20th National Assembly here.