Japan, South Korea cozy up

By jointly honoring an anniversary, the two US allies can now finish making amends and start to work together for their common interests in Asia.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech during a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of Japan-South Korea bilateral relations at a hotel in Seoul, South Korea, June 22. Behind her are the flags of each country.

Warm ties between Asian nations are often hindered by memories of bitter history and none more so than between Japan and South Korea. The two nations today are democracies, trading partners, and allies of the United States that face common adversaries. Yet their leaders rarely meet, mainly as a result of differences over the role of Imperial Japan during its 35-year colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

This diplomatic freeze thawed a bit on Monday. The countries’ prime ministers attended separate ceremonies in their respective capitals to mark an important anniversary: the normalization of bilateral relations in 1965, which came two decades after the end of World War II. 

For years after that official recognition, Japan assumed issues of the past had been settled. But when South Korea become democratic in the late 1980s, nationalist sentiments and domestic politics revived old disputes. Japan then issued official apologies in the 1990s. But South Korea has kept demanding more of Japan.

Monday’s joint ceremonies, while only symbolic, hint that Tokyo and Seoul are closer than ever to resolving past grievances, especially a dispute over Japan’s wartime use of thousands of Korean women as sex slaves, or “comfort women.” Much will now depend on a speech expected this August by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Can both Mr. Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye end the cycle of nationalist impulses in each country? The fact that the two leaders now seek to meet later this year gives some hope.

Healing wounds of the past will require humility on both sides to listen to each other’s concerns and to honor each other’s national identity. More can still be done to help the surviving “comfort women” and the two countries must agree on the history of that abuse. South Korea can also welcome Mr. Abe’s efforts to have Japan take on greater international responsibilities.

Just as important would be a mutual recognition that Asia needs Japan and South Korea to work together. The US, with 80,000 troops in the two countries, cannot remain the main guardian of peace in the region forever. China’s aggression and North Korea’s nuclear weapons require other Asian nations to resolve their disputes. Japan and South Korea, by recalling that day a half-century ago when they rose above their past, may be on the right path.

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