No subject causes more friction between Japan and South Korea than this. It is the debate about how to settle a long-standing argument about so-called "comfort women." For the past seven years, lawyers have been active in the South Korean court. They have been claiming to represent the families of women involved in sex work during the period of Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
The lawyers' goal is to pester the Japanese government or businesses to pay money. In doing so, they continue to make atrocious allegations about the behavior of Japanese Imperial soldiers many years ago. Not all of their claims are backed up with evidence.
Japan's Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa has branded the latest court judgment "extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable." An appeals court judge in Seoul has declared that the Japanese government is liable to make payments of ₩200 million KW ($150,000 USD) to each plaintiff. This is the reverse of a previous ruling two years ago.
In response, Minister Kamikawa said: "Japan once again strongly urges the Republic of Korea to immediately take appropriate measures to remedy the status of its breaches of international law on its own responsibility as a country."
The Japanese government has repeatedly said that the comfort women issue was settled under a 1965 treaty on Basic Relations and settlement of claims. Those agreements normalized relations and provided Seoul with huge sums following South Korea's independence from Tokyo in 1945.
Threat to Progress
The timing of the latest court decision is unfortunate. It arrives just as the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan are due to meet in the port of Busan this weekend, November 25-26. China's representative, Wang Yi will also join them. It will be the first time that ministers from the three countries have met in this way since 2019.
In my view, Minister Kamikawa should speak bluntly about the court ruling in relation to the comfort women when she goes to Busan this weekend. However, she will need to be mindful that China is hoping for signs that the Japan-South Korea relationship is starting to crack. Such a result suits Beijing's ambition to be the preeminent power in the region.
President Yoon Suk-yeol has placed a great emphasis on moving on from past colonial-era disputes. In his recent speeches, he has highlighted many ways in which Japan is a valued partner with South Korea.
However, his government claims that it cannot be expected to interfere in the courts, which are independent. Japan's response is that the court's actions are clearly contrary to international law. Moreover, they breach long-standing agreements between the two countries.
There is a risk that the renewed tension over the comfort women issue could have a negative impact on the rapprochement between South Korea and Japan. In a worst-case scenario, it could set back the progress that has been made toward rebuilding trust. That would carry damaging implications for trade, politics, and security.
South Korea's Defense Minister Shin Wonsik recently described the international security situation as "grave." He noted that "North Korean nuclear missile threats are advancing by the day. Meanwhile, the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas is intensifying and the war in Ukraine is continuing."
They stressed that the trilateral partnership between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is stronger than ever. That follows a summit at Camp David in Maryland in the summer when Joe Biden hosted Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Yoon.
Several important security cooperation initiatives were announced at that event, including regular drills involving the militaries of the three countries.
Defense Minister Shin has warned that "if North Korea does use nuclear weapons, it will face an immediate, overwhelming, and decisive response from South Korea and the United States which will lead to the end of the Kim regime."
Despite this, North Korea launched a rocket that it says was carrying a spy satellite on November 21. Analysts are still debating whether the launch was a success.
The action represents another serious breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions banning tests by the North using ballistic missile technology.
South Korea's intelligence agency has suggested that North Korea received technological assistance from Russia for the latest launch.
The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned in Seoul recently: "We're troubled by the recent growth in military cooperation between Russia and North Korea."
America is concerned that China is helping North Korea expand its military capabilities. Among other things, by enabling Pyongyang to evade UN sanctions.
Speaking in October, Foreign Minister Kamikawa told the Nikkei she would like to arrange a high-level meeting with North Korea. Her goal would be to work out a plan for the return of Japanese citizens abducted by the country decades ago.
However, I see no indication that the North is interested in such a meeting. The best course of action for Japan is therefore to remain firm in its alliance with its trilateral partners. Even despite the problems that are being stirred up in the courts of Seoul by money-focused lawyers.
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Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on JAPAN Forward