South Korea to mark Japan's defeat amid disquiet over Abe's reforms

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to change the laws that prevent overseas deployment of Japanese troops. South Koreans argue that Japan hasn't fully atoned for its wartime actions. 

Lee Jin-man/AP
A woman looks at South Korean national flags hanging on trees to celebrate the upcoming the 70th anniversary of Independence Day, Aug. 15, from Japanese colonial rule at downtown Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.

South Koreans face the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender and "liberation" of the Korean peninsula Saturday in a festive mood tempered by doubts about Japanese atonement for war-time atrocities and worries about confrontation with North Korea.

At a conference here "for peace in East Asia," held at the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Japanese and Korean participants expressed worries about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's moves to revise Article 9 of Japan's post-war constitution, renouncing "the threat or use of force" in "settling international disputes."

"The real fear of Japan is very, very minimal," says Moon Chung-in, a politics professor at Yonsei University. But, he adds, "the imagined fear is quite big." Koreans cannot forget, he said, that "Japan had militarism, that Japan undertook the war."

South Korea's President Park Geun-hye has been attempting to repair relations with Japan, its former colonizer. But she may have to do a delicate balancing act after Mr. Abe issues his long-awaited statement Friday, the day before the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945.

"Japan has inflicted damage on many people," says Chung Hyun-back of the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, which is often critical of government policy. "Japan needs to apologize and protect Article 9 of the constitution. The governments of China and Korea have both expressed their concern."

While Abe is sure to express remorse, however, he is not likely to acknowledge that the Japanese forced thousands of women, the majority of them Korean, to serve as "comfort women" in military brothels.  Japan has repeatedly refused Korean demands for compensation beyond a blanket sum that Japan gave to South Korea in 1965 when Japan and Korea formed diplomatic relations.

That issue is explosive in Korea and also a major complaint among Japanese critics. "The Abe administration must accept what the international community calls 'responsibilities,'" says Haruki Wada, a historian at Tokyo University. "We don't know what he will do about the comfort woman issue. If he does not make reparations, I don't think he deserves to be the Japanese prime minister."

"Abe will be somewhat milder but does not like to change his own stance," says Lee Bu-young, a former long-time member of the South Korean national assembly. "He is pressured by his own group."

Tensions rise with North

Troubles with North Korea, moreover, cast a shadow over the holiday mood. Although North Korea celebrates the same holiday, North and South Korea this week have been exchanging recriminations rather than goodwill messages.

North Korea called plans for US-South Korean joint exercises this month "a declaration of war," while the South promised revenge for an Aug. 4 mine explosion that severely wounded two army sergeants on the southern side of the demilitarized zone. North Korea has rejected South Korean calls for dialogue, much less coordinating on anniversary events.

One sign of the depth of animosity was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's decision not to see Lee Hee-ho, widow of the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, when she visited North Korea earlier this month. Ms. Lee had accompanied her husband when he flew to the first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in June 2000 with Mr. Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, whose funeral she attended in 2011. Hopes were high before her departure that her four-day trip would help to restart dialog between the two Koreas.

In the holiday spirit, however, Ms. Park announced pardons for 6,527 people, ranging from 14 businessmen convicted of misuse of company funds to hundreds guilty of minor misdemeanors and traffic offenses. The best known among them is Chey Tae-won, chairman of the SK Group, South Korea's third largest chaebol or conglomerate, who has already served two years of a four-year term.

For Ms. Park, the release of the business leaders is almost as sensitive an issue as that of her response to Abe's statement. She said she issued the pardons "to help forge national reconciliation and revitalize the economy as well as to boost people’s spirits.”

However, her decision has sparked criticism across the political spectrum. The opposition political party accused her of going back on her promise to fight "abnormal practices" by the chaebol while business groups had expected pardons for a number of others, including the chairman of the Hanwha group, another large chaebol.

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