Adversaries Japan and South Korea want to improve ties!
China may mediate between them!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
East Asian neighbors South Korea and Japan with strained relationships marked the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties on June 21 with a push to mend relations strained for years by feuds over the legacy of Japan’s wartime past.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not held bilateral talks since taking office. Sino-Japanese ties, similarly frayed by an island dispute and Japan’s wartime legacy, have however seen a thaw since Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their first summit last year.
The leaders of South Korea and Japan called for their countries to leave behind historical disputes and improve ties, a rare exchange of conciliatory remarks that came as the leaders observed the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations at embassy events in their capitals.
Ties have been so strained in recent years over issues rooted in Japan’s colonial rule of Korea in the early 20th century that the attendance of the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, at a reception hosted by the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and that of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a corresponding ceremony in Tokyo are being hailed as a rare triumph. Abe even emphasized shared “strategic interests” between the neighboring countries.
The strain in relations is complicating efforts to boost security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, two of the United States’ main Asian allies, as the region copes with an unpredictable North Korea and an assertive China. Relations have worsened under Ms. Park and Abe, who took office within months of each other in early 2013 and late 2012.
South Korea remains adamant that Japan has not properly atoned for its wartime past, especially its recruitment of Koreans and other Asians as sex slaves, or so-called comfort women, for its military-run brothels during World War II. Japan has insisted that such matters were settled when a treaty normalizing their ties was signed 50 years ago
Ms. Park has repeatedly called on Japan to take actions that would convince South Koreans that it was truly atoning for the women’s mistreatment. South Koreans have complained that under Japan’s nationalist prime minister, the nation has played down responsibility for the enslavement of the women while revising textbooks to glorify its history of aggression.
For their part, many Japanese have accused South Korea of being unreasonable for repeatedly demanding an apology they feel their country has already offered. Ethnic Koreans in Japan, many of them descendants of forced laborers, have recently become a target of hate speech from right-wing extremists there.
Even as the descendants of Koreans conscripted to the Japanese imperial army or recruited for forced labor under Japanese colonial rule protested outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding compensation and recognition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a reception hosted by the South Korean embassy in Tokyo, while South Korean President Park Geun-hye was to attend a ceremony hosted by the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
As part of the 1965 treaty, Japan provided $800 million in grants and cheap loans that South Korea used in building highways and factories. But the treaty was signed amid widespread protests in South Korea, where memories of brutal colonial rule remained raw and anti-Japanese sentiments still formed part of Koreans’ national identity. Although the two countries have since become significant trading partners, they have continued to bicker over a set of islets held by South Korea but also claimed by Japan, as well as over the issue of the sex slaves.
Although the leaders’ presence at the ceremonies did not amount to a breakthrough concerning historical disputes, any signs of mending ties between the two American allies are welcome in Washington. The United States has repeatedly urged Japan and South Korea to improve ties at a time of regional anxiety over a more assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea. Partly because of prodding from Washington, South Korean and Japanese officials have been talking for months about laying the groundwork for Ms. Park and Abe to hold their first summit meeting — although there is no immediate breakthrough in sight.
South Korea says Japan has not properly atoned for its wartime past, including its role in forcing Korean women into prostitution at military brothels, while Japan says the matter of compensation for comfort women has already been settled. Kishida’s meeting with Yun took place a day ahead of the 50th anniversary of the signing of a treaty that normalised ties between the two countries.
Japan has demanded Seoul stop using the term “sex slaves” when referring to the “comfort women,” Japan’s euphemistic term for the tens of thousands of females who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during the war. In Tokyo, Japanese right-wing activists in trucks with loud speakers circled the Korea Center amid heavy policing, shouting slogans such as “Cut ties with South Korea.”
As a result of the mutual hatred, Abe and Park have not held a formal one-on-one meeting since taking office, Abe at the end of 2012 and Park in 2013, due to issues that include differing views about Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, which lasted from 1910 until Japan lost the war in 1945. Foreign Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, agreed to step up their efforts to set up a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye “at an appropriate time.” Japan’s ambassador to South Korea, Koro Bessho, said in an interview that he was certain that a meeting between Abe and Park would be held on the sidelines of a trilateral summit involving Japan, South Korea and China. Japan as well as Korea are looking forward to Chinese mediation for the sake of regional peace and stability.
The key US allies in Asia are also working toward their first leaders’ meeting in three years, hoping to move past tension that has complicated efforts to improve security cooperation in the face of an unpredictable North Korea and an assertive China.
The chances of a summit meeting depend largely on whether the two governments can narrow their differences over the issue of the sex slaves. Just a few days ago, they were widely expected by local media to send their messages to the events without showing up.
Park and Abe attended separate functions, Park at a reception at the Japanese Embassy in South Korea and Abe at the South Korean embassy in Japan. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also travelled to Tokyo to mark the occasion, making his first trip to Japan since assuming office in 2013. Both Park and Abe struck hopeful notes in their remarks. Park noted that the 50th anniversary of Japan-ROK relations “can provide a significant opportunity for the two countries to move toward a future.” Abe talked about cooperation on regional and global issues, and our joint efforts to advance our international contributions will lead the way to a new future for both nations.
With Park herself recently speaking of “considerable progress” in Japan-South Korea negotiations over the issue, that raises hopes for a final solution. However, South Korea and Japan still need to solve their outstanding issues, particularly the historical issues that divide South Korea and Japan, before the relationship can continue to advance.