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Historical animosity with Japan still tricky problem for Lee Myung-bak

Publication Date : 24-10-2012


About a week after his swearing-in in February 2008, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak underscored that Korea and Japan should not give up future relations by being “fettered by the past”.

The remarks at the March 1 Liberation Movement Day ceremony drew the ire of the public still harbouring resentment over Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula. Political foes derided him as a “pro-Japan” president.

Lee’s “practicality-based” policy toward Japan took a sharp turn late last year as public sentiment deteriorated with Tokyo’s continued denial of its wartime atrocities and repeated claim to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo.

Becoming more vociferous over Japan’s unapologetic attitude, Lee pressed Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to address what he defines as the “universal humanitarian” issue of wartime sexual enslavement during their summit last December.

Lee took another high-profile step in August by making a surprise visit to Dokdo ― a first for an incumbent president. The visit, which some disparaged as an attempt to shore up his flagging popularity, sparked an intense war of nerves between the two neighbours.

“Japan, such a big country, can untangle these (historical, territorial issues) if it really makes up its mind to solve them,” Lee told a parliamentary delegation that visited Cheong Wa Dae days after his visit to Dokdo. “As it has so far remained passive in the resolution (of the issues), I felt the need to act.”

Seoul’s calls for Japan’s repentance, however, appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Tokyo continues to demand the removal of the so-called Peace Statue that activists erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul last December to call for Japan’s apology for those forced into sexual slavery during World War II.

On Monday this week, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura urged Korean lawmakers to scrap their reported plan to visit Dokdo. Tokyo has continued to call for a legal solution to the long-simmering territorial row ― a move Seoul dismissed as part of Japan’s strategy to make the case an international dispute.

Last week, Shinzo Abe of the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party, a hawkish former prime minister seen likely to return to Japan’s premiership, visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol of the country’s brutal militarism.

The historical antipathy has also served as an impediment to the two countries’ cooperation in the military sector. Seoul and Tokyo pushed to sign a military information-sharing pact to better deal with North Korean threats, but failed amid public disapproval here.

Tension in their relationship has unnerved their mutual ally, the US, which has sought to capitalise on the two Asian powers as it is rebalancing its diplomatic and military priorities in the region emerging as a fulcrum of global politics and economy.

“I raised these issues with both of them, urging that their interests really lay in making sure that they lower the temperature and work together, in a concerted way, to have a calm and restrained approach,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters while attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Russia in September.

Analysts say Seoul-Tokyo ties could further worsen amid Japan’s rightward political shift, although others remain positive over their long-term relations given the two, after all, share security concerns over North Korea with the US mediating between them.

Japan’s conservative tide has escalated in recent years as it seeks to restore its national pride undermined by a prolonged economic malaise and a series of natural disasters, the experts said. Japanese politicians have taken more hawkish, nationalistic positions in historical and territorial conflicts with Korea and China, they noted.

The two neighbours, after all, should coordinate a practical policy that would help minimise emotional responses to their long-simmering issues, experts said.

“I think what is important in the policy toward Japan is to make the public recognise the need to separate territorial and historical issues,” said Lee Jung-hwan, assistant professor at the School of International and Area Studies of Kookmin University.

“There is actually some possibility of a concession (from Japan) over the historical issue as it also involves the humanitarian aspect. But the territorial issue is very difficult for either side to back down on. As the public thinks of them as one combined issue, separating the two is quite a tough nut to crack.”

Some observers paint a positive outlook over the bilateral relationship, saying as long as Seoul and Tokyo share regional security interests, Japan is likely to refrain from seriously damaging their strategic cooperative ties.

“The reason why the spats between Korea and Japan look very conspicuous is it directly affects the public sentiment. But beyond the emotional dimension, the relationship has not been damaged that seriously,” said Chung Sung-yoon at Ilmin International Relations Institute of Korea University.

“As their allies ― the US ― will work to defuse the tension between them and they share security interests in the region, the recent negative developments in their ties may not be that critically detrimental to their relationship.”


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