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Hither and Yon

South Korea and Japan struggle to move beyond bitter history to address China threat

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
It’s a time for anniversaries and memories of the tragedies that have afflicted Northeast Asia over the past century.
On Tuesday, the Japanese remembered the horror of the single worst battle in Asian history, the three-month struggle for Okinawa. The battle ended with the final defeat of the Japanese by U.S. forces on June 23, 1945, after the deaths of 200,000 people, more than half of them civilians.
Then, on Thursday, Koreans marked the 65th anniversary of the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the opening of a bitter conflict in which several hundred thousand combatants from all sides and several million civilians were killed.
Those statistics pale beside the numbers who died in World War II before Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, ending Japanese rule over Korea and much of China.
On the 70th anniversary of that date, Koreans will listen to see how or if Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologizes not only for the Pacific War but for the entire colonial era.
So profound are current differences between Korea and Japan that President Park Geun-Hye and Prime Minister Abe have never met for a summit. Now, however, the betting is that Abe will come to Seoul in the fall for a meeting with Park where they will try to overcome some of the tensions while talking around such insoluble problems as the legacy of comfort women and Japan’s skewed accounting of imperial history.
If the two are unable to bury their differences, at least they may remove some of the hostility that has tarnished their relations ― and threatens commercial ties and shared concerns about North Korea. They signaled their desire to look ahead at receptions proffered by their embassies on the 50th anniversary on Monday of the opening of diplomatic ties ― Park at the Japanese embassy reception in Seoul, Abe as a guest of the Koreans in Tokyo.
Even if the two sides refuse to budge on cantankerous issues, the need for “trilateral cooperation” ― the U.S. spurring them on in the interest of mutual defense ― appears to be an overriding consideration.
No, Korea and Japan are not about to join in a three-sided alliance with the U.S., but they’ll sidestep or perhaps ”agree to disagree” or simply avoid some of the irritants that have bedeviled relations between Seoul and Tokyo over the past half century.
It’s not likely, for instance, that Abe will provoke Korea, and also China, by again visiting the Yasukuni Shrine memorializing Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals, but concerns about China suggest another form of trilateral cooperation.
China’s President Xi Jinping may assert China’s rising influence by hosting a three-sided summit in Beijing. Against the backdrop of China’s enormous commercial relations with both Korea and Japan, the three should talk about China’s unpredictable protectorate, North Korea, and try to ease tensions over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, held by Japan but claimed by China.
First, however, Park and Abe should hold their own bilateral summit some time after the observances of Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, a milestone that’s far more important than the 50th anniversary of Korean-Japanese relations. Koreans will no doubt be disappointed when Abe, as expected, resorts to a ”personal” apology that falls short of the abject official government apology covering all the wrongs of Japanese rule, but Park and Abe will still have a lot to talk about.
Probably no issue is more sensitive than that of compensation for the dwindling numbers of comfort women that now age close to 90 on average. In fact, in a package of agreements concluded 50 years ago, Japan pledged $800 million in “compensation.” Park Geun-Hye’s father, the long-ruling Park Chung-Hee, was eager for all the economic benefits he could wrest from Japan at a time when the “Korean miracle” was in gestation.
Is it conceivable that Japan and Korea will reach any understanding on comfort women? Whatever compromise they may agree on, it’s pretty certain the groups demanding compensation won’t be happy about the terms.
The Japanese, moreover, are making demands of their own. They can’t stand that bronze statue of a demure, innocent looking comfort woman across a narrow street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and they want the Koreans to stop referring to comfort women as “sex slaves.” They’re hoping the statue will go when Japan builds a new embassy on the same site.
Compensation for comfort women is by no means the only long-running issue. What about those Japanese textbooks that gloss over colonial wrongs, including brutal suppression of Koreans after the short-lived revolt of March 1, 1919, a date memorialized by Koreans as a national holiday?
And how about those two enormous rocks ― Dokdo to Koreans, Takeshima to the Japanese ― out there in the East Sea, aka the Sea of Japan? Korea zealously holds them while Japan refuses to relinquish its claim.
Neither Park nor Abe said a word about Dokdo/Takeshima at those 50th anniversary receptions. Better for the status quo to prevail than to risk more mass suffering remembered in anniversaries of long-ago battles and wars.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s reachable at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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