Japan's new PM visits South Korea. Will the visit bring the countries closer?

Japan and South Korea have a complicated history, but both face challenges with North Korea and a rising China.

Kim Jae-hwan/AP
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, front right, and Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, enter for their meeting at Blue House in Seoul, South Korea on Wednesday.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, on his first foreign visit to South Korea since assuming his post two months ago, returned ancient royal books stolen during Japanese colonial rule but made no concessions Wednesday on long-running issues, despite rising concerns about China and North Korea.

While demonstrators outside the Japanese Embassy denounced Mr. Noda’s visit, Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak told him Japan “needs to make active efforts” over demands dating from 35 years of Japanese rule that ended in August 1945.

Well before Mr. Noda got here, however, Japanese diplomats made carefully clear that Japan is not going to budge on the question of compensation for women forced to serve Japanese soldiers as “comfort women” during World War II.

Still, among major mutual concerns are how to deal with North Korea diplomatically and militarily and what to make of the power of China.

“There have been talks about upgrading security cooperation,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus. “China rising is a common problem. Japan sees opportunities and threats.”

As far as the “comfort women” are concerned, says Yutaka Yokoi, director-general for public relations at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, “we have done what we can” – a reference to the treaty signed by Korea and Japan in 1965 that awarded the women token compensation.

Nor, he adds, can Japan renounce its claim to two rocky islets midway between the two countries that are held by Korean forces but long claimed by Japan.

The desire for mutual cooperation, on a free-trade agreement as well as defense and diplomacy, did not cover up the dispute over the contested islets. The Koreans call them Dokdo; the Japanese say they’re properly called Takeshima. The islets sit in the middle of what the Koreans call the East Sea and the Japanese call the Sea of Japan.

Koreans were outraged over a recent Japanese defense white paper that said the islets were Japanese territory, and Korea blocked three members of Japan’s parliament from visiting them. Japan barred all officials from flying on Korean Air after the airline invited journalists and others on a flight over the them in one of its newest planes.

Lee clearly had these issues in mind as he remarked, standing beside Noda at a joint press conference, “Moving toward the future without forgetting history is the basis for Korea-Japan relations.”

Resentment over Japanese rule persists

The impasse dramatizes much deeper resentments among Koreans over Japanese rule despite the mounting influence of cultural exchanges and tourist and business trips that routinely fill flights between the two countries.

“We have very mixed feelings toward Japan,” says Albert Kim, a retired United Nations official who was born while the Japanese still ruled Korea. “Those who realty suffered during the Japanese occupation hate Japan.”

Mr. Kim, who studied Japanese in school, as all Korean children had to do in that period, says he bears no personal animosity but his wife feels differently. “She saw they tortured Korean women,” he says. “She says one day she hates the Japanese and the next day we eat in a Japanese restaurant.”

And "the grandfather of one of my friends was assassinated,” says Kim, “but then his daughter goes to Japan to study Japanese.”

Japanese cite the return of books on court protocol as evidence of Japanese goodwill. Noda handed over five volumes and will send back another 1,200 by the end of the year, says Osamu Fujimura, chief cabinet secretary, to “encourage cultural relations and a mature relationship.”

Mr. Kingston uses the acronym “frenemies” – friends and enemies – to describe Korean-Japanese relations. “They have a lot to be friendly about," he says, "and a lot of animosity."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.