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Inching towards better ties

Julian Ryall, Tokyo
September 1, 2016

The two neighbors and long-time rivals have taken steps to ease the pain of the past, although many in Korea have a long memory of their mistreatment at the hands of Japanese colonizers. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shakes hands with South Korean President Park Geun-hye before bilateral summit at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, November 2, 2015 (Photo: Reuters/Yonhap/L. Jung-hoon)
Image: Reuters/Yonhap/L. Jung-hoon

For decades, Japan and South Korea have exchanged accusations and demands over everything from territorial claims to interpretations of the two nations' shared history, trade concerns and more specific issues, such as recognition for the Korean women forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military before and during World War II.

The rivalry even extends to the stretch of water that divides the two neighbors; Tokyo says it is the Sea of Japan but Seoul insists that it should be known as the East Sea.

Given the two nations' pasts - Japan invaded the Korean peninsula in 1910 and often used brute force to cow the population until Tokyo's surrender in 1945 - it is inevitable that resentments and rivalries would occasionally flare into outright hostility.

But, in the space of a couple of weeks, there appears to have been a significant improvement in bilateral ties as a result of a series of agreements and concessions by both sides.

A visitor looks at portraits of late former
South Korea's 'comfort women# are taking a stand against better ties with JapanImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A.Young-joon

Last month, Japan announced that it would provide one billion Yuan (8.7 million euros) to an organization in South Korea called the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation. The group is to disburse the money to the 46 surviving "comfort women," the term used for former sex slaves of the Japanese military, and the families of 199 women who have died. The funds will also be used for a joint memorial service.

'Painfully aware'

Announcing that it is "painfully aware of its responsibilities" for the "comfort women" issue when the bilateral accord was signed last year, Japan had long claimed that all compensation claims had been settled under a 1965 agreement. But providing funds to the victims is seen as a further admission of atonement.

On August 27, Yoo Il-ho, the South Korean minister of finance, and his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, held talks in Seoul during which they agreed to open talks on a new currency swap arrangement designed to increase the stability of financial markets in the region and strengthen economic cooperation.

A previous agreement expired in February 2015, a time of deep divisions between the two nations that ultimately blocked efforts to renew the deal.

And on August 28, the culture ministers of Japan, South Korea and China agreed to hold joint cultural events that coincide with South Korea hosting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, Tokyo staging the 2020 summer Olympics and Beijing serving as the host city for the 2022 Winter Games.

"Better relations are clearly in the best interests of both Japan and South Korea, particularly given the threat posed by an unpredictable regime in North Korea and a decline in Seoul's previously improving relations with Beijing," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

Missile deployment

Ties with China have deteriorated since South Korea announced that it intends to deploy the US Army's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to defend against North Korean's ballistic missile threat. Despite assurances to the contrary, China sees THAAD as a threat to its own defenses and has retaliated through a number of small-scale actions, such as increasing paperwork for South Korean tourists.

"South Korea is learning that China always demands its pound of flesh and Seoul is not entirely comfortable with the way in which Beijing is taking on the role of regional hegemon," Okumura told DW.

Forging better ties with Japan, as well as the United States, which has acted as a protector ever since the days of the 1950-'53 Korean War, is the obvious solution, Okumura added.

Upswings and downswings

"There have been upswings and downswings in the relationship over the years, but as long as the 'Big Four' in Japanese politics - the prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and chief cabinet secretary - do not go to pay their respects at Yasukuni Shrine, then I do not see any major flashpoints in the immediate future that might endanger these improving ties," Okumura said, referring to the Tokyo shrine that is considered the last resting place of millions of Japanese citizens who died in the nation's wars.

Seoungju residents chant slogans during a protest against the government's decision on deploying a US THAAD anti-missile defense unit in Seongju, in Seoul, South Korea, July 21, 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)
Many South Koreans are against the deployment of the THAAD anti-missle system in their countryImage: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Yasukuni arouses fury in Japan's neighbors, however, as it also honors Class-A war criminals who were executed by the Allies after Tokyo's surrender.

Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador to Tokyo, said he welcomed the improvement in relations - "because there are so many good reasons to be closer neighbors" - but fears deep-rooted hostility over the legacy of Japan's colonial occupation of the peninsula would continue to overshadow ties.

"The bad feeling has been going on for such a long time that it is impossible to simply forget it all," he said. "Of course, I welcome better ties but we never know what is going to happen in the weeks and months ahead. The relationship could sour again in a moment."

To underline the long memories of those who experienced Japanese rule in the early decades of the last century, one "comfort woman" is taking a stand against better ties.

Kim Bok-dong told South Korean media that she would refuse to accept money from the fund set up for former comfort women because Japan had still not provided a meaningful apology or adequate compensation for her suffering.

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