Abe touches a raw nerve in South Korea
By Daniel Leussink
TOKYO - At a first glance, the expressions of the new political leadership in Japan and South Korea toward each other appear to be opposite. Japan's new hardline Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to lighten the mood in the bilateral relationship by using his personal charm. South Korea's Park Geun-hye has done otherwise. She has already vented her frustration with Japan publicly since her inauguration as South Korea's first female president.
Japan has to "have a correct understanding of history and take on an attitude of responsibility in order to partner with us," warned 61-year-old Park in a speech on March 1. "Only then will we be able to build rock-solid trust between our nations, which will in turn
enable reconciliation and collaboration in a genuine sense."
March 1 marked the 94th anniversary of a popular uprising against the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Park issued another warning against Japan in a similar popular vein days before her resistance speech. She told Taro Aso, the finance minister in Abe's cabinet, to get a correct understanding of history when the two met for 25 minutes on Park's presidential inauguration day.
Ties between Japan and South Korea have been strained ever since Lee Myung-bak, Park's predecessor, visited a contested set of rocks - called Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean - and said that the Japanese emperor should apologize to the victims of Japan's past colonial rule of Korea before he possibly visits South Korea.
Abe, aged 58 and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, is known for his hawkish stance on history issues. Yet he reached out to Park in a bid to turn the tide on the deteriorated relationship between their two countries. Various senior LDP figures - former prime minister Yasuo Fukuda and Fukushiro Nukaga - met Park in the week of her presidential inauguration.
"South Korea is the most important neighbor for us," said Abe during his United States visit last month. "I have had met president-elect Park Geun-hye twice, I've also had a meal with her actually. My grandfather was best friends with her father, president Park Chung-hee. So president Park Chung-hee was someone who was very close with Japan, obviously."
The question is whether Abe risked distancing himself from Park with his comments emphasizing their close personal ties.
"Some of this may fall on deaf ears in Seoul as lately tolerance for Japanese off-color historical remarks is at an all-time low," said Victor Cha, the Korea Chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a commentary. "Nevertheless, the new South Korean president understands the importance of strong US-Japan-ROK ties and at a personal level has affinity for Japan."
The Korean media have been unhappy with the return of the hawkish Abe as the prime minister of Japan, after a six-year hiatus (his previous term ended in 2007).
The Korea Times urged Park to harden her stance towards Japan following Abe's remarks. "It's not easy to see why Abe, who must be aware that such a personal friendship is a burden rather than an asset in Korea, made such a comment," the daily said. "President Park must be more resolute in dealing with Japan if for no other reason than erasing her father's pro-Japanese disgrace even a little."
Abe already stirred South Korea's pot a week before by sending the first government official ever to ceremony celebrating the incorporation of Takeshima - the contested rocks - triggering a strong rebuke from Seoul. A record of 19 lawmakers attended the event.
The Japanese media was split down the middle on whether Abe was right or wrong to push through his wish to send a government official to the local ceremony. Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's most influential daily, strongly supported his choice.
"Last summer, South Korean president Lee Myung Bak broke diplomatic norms by visiting Takeshima and demanding the Emperor's apology for Japan's behavior during colonial times," the daily said.
"It is the job of the government to expand public interest in and understanding of territorial issues because such matters pertain to national sovereignty," it said. "The central government should organize a Takeshima Day event."
Experts say there are various time-bombs under the Abe cabinet that could spell trouble for Japan and South Korea, given the explosive mix of Abe's hawkish reputation and the anti-Japan mood in South Korea.
Victor Cha, of CSIS, warned that the revision of Japanese history text books is the earliest time bomb that is coming up as soon as this month. "The Park government's reaction to the next time bomb in bilateral relations - revisions of history textbooks - later next month [in March] will be an indicator of the direction in relations," he said.
Michael Cucek, a research associate with the MIT Center for International Studies and independent political analyst, said that potential tension points include a replacement or supplement to Japan's 1995 statement of remorse, called the Murayama statement, and a revision of the Kono statement on Korean comfort women made in 1993.
"I think Abe wanted to retreat [on the Kono statement]. It seems madness because the comfort women issue is so much part of South Korean identity. It is just something that they just go crazy over," said Cucek at the end of a talk at Temple University in Tokyo.
"Washington DC has a very nice plan where it is expensive to have troops in Asia, [so] let Japan and South Korea work together to deal with East- Asian security problems and eventually we will be able to lower our profile," said Cucek. "There is a great deal of talk in Washington DC to let South Korea and Japan have closer relations. Those two countries don't necessarily want that. But there is a good reason not to enrage South Korea and that is one of the things that is in the cards."
Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan's former ambassador to the United States, when I asked him at a press conference on December 10 - before the election in both nations - for his outlook on bilateral relations for 2013, warned leaders in both countries that they cannot engage in deteriorating relations for too long.
"I hope that the two sides, two new leaders in South Korea and Japan, sense that we cannot indulge in deteriorating relations," he said. "It is not good for the two countries too long."
On the comfort women issue, Fujisaki said there are a lot of things Japan has done already, such as the creation of the Asia's Women's Fund, offering atonement to victims, and an individual letter of apology from the prime minister.
"There are limits to what we can do to the comfort women issue because of two reasons," said Fujisaki. "One, because we've already concluded a basic treaty with South Korea and secondly, sometimes it is very difficult to draw lines between some of the compensations."
"We've been doing as much as we can do," he said. "We should try not to make this a sticking issue into people's minds."
Daniel Leussink is a Dutch journalist who has been based in Tokyo since 2007.
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