December 29, 2015 3:10 am JST
Japan-South Korea ties

Time to turn energies toward building better future

KIYOYUKI UCHIYAMA, Editor, Nikkei Political News Department

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye deserve credit for deciding to bring closure to the issue of wartime "comfort women" with just days left in this 50th year since Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic relations.

     The issue surfaced in the 1990s but seemed dormant for a while. It flared up again at a late-2011 meeting between then-leaders Yoshihiko Noda and Lee Myung-bak. Bilateral relations soured so badly that this was the last summit for nearly four years.

     The durability of the issue owes not only to its relevance to human rights, but also to structural factors on both sides.

     South Korea overcame the 1997 Asian financial crisis and gained confidence as Samsung and other homegrown conglomerates grew into global companies. As its democracy matured, human rights concerns came to the fore. Behind Seoul's vexation with Japanese legalism on the comfort women issue -- Tokyo's insistence that a 1965 agreement settled all outstanding claims -- one can see South Korean pride at no longer being "Japan's little brother."

     The annoyance was mutual for Japan. Tokyo grew frustrated with what it saw as Seoul's dismissiveness toward Japanese attempts at reconciliation, such as the Asian Women's Fund, and its insistence on reopening old wounds.

     Significantly, Monday's agreed-on resolution claims to be final and irreversible. But sources of friction remain. One is the question of legal responsibility for any abuses against comfort women. Another is a memorial to comfort women outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul -- a statue of a little girl that may yet provoke more angry outbursts from Japan if it is not relocated.

     South Korea has shown itself unable to control anti-Japanese sentiment once unleashed. Japan, too, is prone to let animosity escalate in the other direction amid a fading sense of atonement over its colonialist past. To build bilateral trust, dissenters must be convinced and the agreement carried out. The accord is thus less of a goal than a starting line.

     South Korea must get over its predilection for bending historical issues toward domestic political ends. Bashing Japan has given politicians a too-easy way to command attention. But it carries the risk of becoming trapped by public opinion.

     Japan, for its part, must have the tact not to provoke South Korean indignation. This holds particularly true for cabinet ministers and others representing the government. They should show self-discipline in their words and actions so as not to cast doubt on Abe's promise to uphold the so-called Murayama declaration, in which a predecessor expressed remorse and apologized for Japan's 20th-century colonial rule and aggression.

     Much happened in the world during the nearly four years that Japan and South Korea spent at loggerheads. China's rise has raised tensions in the South China Sea. North Korea continues to pursue nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and other efforts to build regional economic blocs are moving apace.

     As two of Asia's largest economies, Japan and South Korea have a duty to help build a new order in the region. This is why the U.S. has pushed so hard for a reconciliation between its two East Asian allies. The future of Asia depends on their ability to reorient their relationship to one that is forward-looking.

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