Koreans warm to historic Japan apology on colonial rule – but want more

In South Korea, Japan's apology on colonial rule, which for the first time acknowledged the forced annexation of Korea, was well received. But those who suffered as sex slaves and laborers in World War II want compensation.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean family members of victims of World War II shout a slogan during a rally demanding full compensation from the Japanese government in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan offered Japan's latest of several apologies to South Korea for Japan's colonial rule decades ago as part of an effort to strengthen ties between the two countries, news reports said Tuesday.

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan surprised Koreans with a contrite apology Tuesday for an entire era of Japanese colonial rule that began a century ago this month and did not end until the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, ending World War II.

The “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” offered by Mr. Kan, however, is not likely to have a significant effect on a society accustomed to Japanese apologies in recent years and doubtful about Japan's intention to ever compensate for forcing more than 1 million Koreans to work in Japan as slave laborers and thousands of Korean women to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.

“To me it’s not inspiring or impressive,” says Park Ho-chan, who works in an office in central Seoul. “It’s a total cliche from one of those politicians.”

Yet the apology resonates among conservative Korean leaders at a time when they are deeply concerned about confrontation with North Korea, which is strongly allied with China. Kan followed the apology with a 20-minute telephone conversation with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak in which Mr. Lee seemed impressed by “the sincerity” of the apology and called for “wise and sincere” cooperation.

Where is the compensation?

Those honeyed words, though, were not likely to satisfy those who have been highly critical of some of the failure of Japan to agree to compensation for the suffering of millions of Koreans under Japanese rule, which grew steadily more harsh as Japan was suffering defeat after defeat in the final period of World War II.

Lee Guk-eon, speaking for the elderly women who protest every week outside the Japanese embassy here for having been forced into sexual slavery during the war, criticized Kan for avoiding the issue of compensation for them. Kan's promise to return invaluable records of the Chosun Dynasty that ruled Korea for 600 years until the Japanese colonial era hardly compensates, he says, for that omission.

Nor did the statement mention other contentious issues, ranging from the wording of Japanese textbooks that Koreans say glosses over Japan’s aggression over much of Asia to the question of who really has rights to an outcropping of rock midway between the Korean peninsula and Japan. Korean police control what the Koreans call Dokdo and the Japanese call Takeshima.

Kan’s statement, Mr. Lee told Korean journalists, failed to “break the mistrust and other barriers existing between the two countries.”

Kan appeared to have timed the apology as a preemptive strike before the 65th anniversary Sunday of the Japanese surrender, observed as an important national holiday in North as well as South Korea. The actual anniversary date of Japan’s annexation of Korea is August 29.

Apology diplomacy

Korean officials made much of the fact that Kan’s apology said specifically that Japan had annexed Korea against the will of the Korean people. That phrase, said a spokeswoman for President Lee, bore “a meaning” that advanced the level of the apology beyond that offered by a former Japanese prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, 15 years ago.

“No Japanese prime minister has ever said that before,” says Choi Jong-won, an office manager. “That’s pleasantly surprising. It’s a good gesture.”

Japanese prime ministers have so often apologized for the evils of Japanese imperialism and colonialism that they are sometimes said to be practicing “apology diplomacy.”

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi apologized at least twice, on different occasions, for Japanese aggression over the Korean peninsula and much of the rest of Asia. The impact was negated, however, by his visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which honors Japanese killed in wartime, including a number judged to be war criminals and executed.

The emphasis now is on cooperation while China begins to flex its muscle around the region as a growing military as well as economic power. Kan in his conversation with Lee suggested that Lee come to Japan before the G20 summit of economic powers that Lee is hosting in November.

The friendly tone reflects the relationship with Japan that Lee is pursuing while worrying about China’s position toward North Korea and the North’s threats of war.

“Lee Myung-bak is so pro-Japan,” says one critic, talking anonymously. “He’s so sycophantic to the US and Japan” – an allusion to Lee’s meetings with President Obama here and in Washington and also with Japanese leaders.

Meanwhile, Kan’s apology, approved by his cabinet, seemed unqualified. “For the enormous damage and suffering caused by this colonization,” he said, I would like to express once again our deep remorse and sincerely apologize.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.