'Unburdening'? Japan and S. Korea see unexpected thaw in relations.

The two are starting to break through what have been bitter disputes over World War II history, making symbolic gestures of mutual goodwill. 

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, r., shakes hands with Fukushiro Nukaga, chairman of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians' Union and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's special envoy, during their meeting at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on June 22.

As Japan and Korea prepare to mark 70 years since the end of World War II, signs of a thaw are emerging between the two US allies after years of a deepening freeze.

This week, at a different anniversary – a half-century since the two Asian neighbors normalized relations – South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, made symbolic and unexpected displays of mutual goodwill.

Having first indicated she would ignore the 50th  commemorations, Ms. Park instead appeared at a ceremony at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and her envoy in Tokyo spoke in new terms of leaving behind the burdens of history.

Prime Minister Abe, meanwhile, attended a similar event at the South Korean embassy in Tokyo.

Problems between Japan and Korea are longstanding, and antipathies have run deeper than many in the West – who remember Japan and Korea co-hosting the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament – have realized.

Two leaders not talking

Park and Abe have yet to hold a bilateral summit amid rancorous disputes over wartime history, and media in the two nations have often framed the other in a negative light. 

In South Korea, Japan stands accused of failing to atone for its brutal colonization of the Korean peninsula and its use of Korean women as military sex slaves.

In Japan, conservatives led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believe contrition over a conflict that ended in 1945 must give way to a more forward-looking relationship – code language, according to critics, for whitewashing the worst excesses of Japanese militarism.

Yet this week, in a message read out in Tokyo by her visiting foreign minister, Yun Byung-Se, Park spoke of the need to begin a new era of cooperation by casting off the “heavy burden of history.”

Abe, meanwhile, said that economic, cultural, and grassroots exchanges between Japan and Korea had become “invaluable assets.”

“Considering the large number of issues where they have common interests and objectives, this prolonged deep chill in relations is both unnatural and counterproductive for both sides,” says Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul. “And considering their common interests, I think bilateral relations have only one direction to go, and that’s up.” 

Days earlier, South Korea took a further step toward progress in relations when it decided to cooperate with Japan’s recent quest to get Meiji-era industrial sites included on a UNESCO’s World Heritage list, in return for Tokyo’s support for its own UNESCO bid.

Seoul had objected to Japan’s application because a number of sites were built by Korean laborers forcibly taken to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, and where many perished.

An Abe-Park summit?

The change in the diplomatic temperature, if sustained, will be welcomed in the US, where the Obama administration has voiced frustration that its two most important allies in Asia – together home to 80,000 American troops – seem unwilling to end what had become often furious bickering over wartime history.

Now there is even talk of a long-awaited summit between Park and Abe, whose closest personal contact since their respective election victories in late 2012 was a visibly frosty meeting arranged last year by President Obama.

A joint survey by the Asahi Shimbun and Dong-A Ilbo newspapers found that 86 percent of Japanese respondents and 90 percent of South Koreans were pessimistic about bilateral ties, although significant majorities in both countries said they wanted to see improvements.

It is too early, though, to talk of a lasting détente.

Seoul has made no secret of its displeasure at Japan’s rightward drift under Abe, whose close advisers stand accused by many international scholars of revising history by insisting there is no evidence that tens of thousands of Korean “comfort women” who served in Japanese military brothels were coerced.

Abe is also unlikely to bow to South Korean demands to repeat an official apology to former victims of Japanese militarism issued by his predecessors on previous war anniversaries. Instead, he has said he will make a more personal, “forward-looking” statement in August that highlights Japan’s postwar commitment to peace.

Many analysts say that Abe’s positions on South Korea are heavily informed by its relations with China, the largest rising power in Asia, which has long taken a stance against Japan’s wartime behavior. Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested to President Park that the two nations take a position of solidarity against Japan, though Park did not respond.

The US, meanwhile, will be watching Tokyo and Seoul closely for any signs of regression. It is hoped in Washington that Japan and South Korea can work through their problems and act as counterweights to an increasingly assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, said the US “very much wants” Seoul and Tokyo to build bridges, but suggested the recent shows of goodwill were another form of pressure on Abe. “I think South Korea came to the conclusion that it was better to partially engage Abe,” Mr. Dujarric says. “It may also be hoping that this will induce Abe to say the right things in his 70th statement.”

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