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President Yoon Suk-yeol waves a South Korean flag during a ceremony in Seoul on Monday to mark Korean Liberation Day. Photo: AFP

South Korea, Japan must confront ‘common threats’ together, Yoon Suk-yeol says – as Kishida vows to never again wage war

  • The South Korean president, at a ceremony marking the end of Japanese colonial rule, called for ties between the two to ‘swiftly and properly improve’
  • It came as Fumio Kishida sent an offering to a controversial shrine honouring Japanese war dead – and pledged that Japan would never again wage war
South Korea
South Korea and Japan face “common threats” and must overcome their historical disputes, President Yoon Suk-yeol said on Monday, offering to improve ties between two US allies the Joe Biden administration has called upon to form a united front against the likes of China, Russia and North Korea.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark the 1945 end of Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, Yoon said Tokyo had become a partner in tackling threats to global freedom, adding that he wants to “swiftly and properly improve” bilateral relations.

“When Korea-Japan relations move toward a common future and when the mission of our times align, based on our shared universal values, it will also help us solve the historical problems that exist between our two countries,” Yoon said in the Liberation Day speech.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, right, and his South Korean counterpart Park Jin bump elbows before their talks in Tokyo on July 18. Photo: Kyodo
Last month, the two countries’ foreign ministers met in Tokyo and said they would seek an early resolution to the issue of compensation for Koreans conscripted during the colonial period to work in factories and mines that helped power Japan’s Imperial Army.
Ties between the neighbours fell to new depths under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, over a series of court decisions awarding compensation to the former workers. Japan sees the decisions as unlawful and the issue as “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement that established diplomatic ties and was accompanied by US$500 million in aid and loans.
A plan being floated by Yoon for a joint fund between the governments stands little chance of support in Japan, which is still angry after a separate fund for so-called comfort women trafficked into Imperial Japanese Army brothels was scuttled by Moon.

South Korea’s foreign ministry submitted an argument to the Supreme Court last month, asking for a delay of the verdict on liquidising assets of a Japanese company to pay compensation for the conscripted workers. The ministry added it was making various diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue.

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Yoon is unlikely to get money for any joint fund, or for South Korea to pay on its own, from a parliament where Moon’s Democratic Party holds a majority and has demanded Japan show what it sees as proper contrition. Yoon, whose support rate has fallen sharply, risks further alienating the South Korean public by moves seen as cosying up to long-time rival Japan.

Yoon, a conservative who took power in May, has advocated a tougher line with China and North Korea – bringing his country’s security policies in greater alignment with those of the US and Japan. In his Liberation Day speech, he called on North Korea to make “genuine and substantive process for denuclearisation”, offering food, energy and infrastructure aid if it does.

“We will implement a large-scale food programme; provide assistance for power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure; and carry out projects to modernise ports and airports for international trade,” he said.

North Korea has blamed the South for causing its Covid-19 outbreak – which Seoul denies – and appears to be preparing to test a nuclear weapon for the first time since 2017, amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system is seen displayed at a showcase on the South Lawn of the White House in 2019. Photo: AP

Yoon’s government has said the possible operation of an American-made missile shield that raised the ire of China was “not negotiable”, pushing back at Beijing’s efforts to hold him to Moon’s policy to freeze its deployment.

Decisions on the deployment of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system was a matter of South Korea’s self-defence, a senior presidential official told reporters last week in Seoul. The Yoon administration is accelerating efforts to “normalise” the operation of the US base in the southern city of Seongju that deployed the THAAD system, the official said.

Meanwhile in Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sent an offering to a controversial Tokyo shrine for war dead visited by members of his cabinet on Monday, moves set to anger Seoul and Beijing, as he pledged to never again wage war.
The Yasukuni Shrine, a site that honours 14 Japanese wartime leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal – as well as war dead – is seen as a symbol of Japan’s past military aggression. Monday’s commemoration at Yasukuni leaves Kishida facing a tricky balancing act.

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He is on the dovish side of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and must avoid irking international neighbours and partners while still keeping the more right-wing members of the party happy, particularly after the killing of party kingpin Shinzo Abe last month.

Kishida sent an offering to the shrine without visiting, Kyodo news agency reported. He sent offerings to Yasukuni during festivals last year and this spring.

“We will never again repeat the horrors of war. I will continue to live up to this determined oath,” Kishida told a secular gathering elsewhere in Tokyo, also attended by Emperor Naruhito. “In a world where conflicts are still unabated, Japan is a proactive leader in peace,” he said.

Footage on broadcaster NHK showed the shrine being visited early on Monday by several cabinet ministers, including Economic Security Minister Sanae Takaichi. Earlier the site was visited by Koichi Hagiuda, the head of the LDP’s policy research council and a key ally of slain former prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“I am not aware of whether the prime minister will visit Yasukuni Shrine or not, and I believe that he will make the appropriate decision,” chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference on Monday.


Japanese lawmakers visit controversial Yasukuni Shrine for first time in 2 years

Japanese lawmakers visit controversial Yasukuni Shrine for first time in 2 years

“It is natural for any country to pay respect to those who gave their lives for their country,” Matsuno said. “Japan will continue to strengthen its relations with its neighbours, including China and South Korea.”

A group of lawmakers that normally visit en masse on August 15 said last week they would not do so due to a recent surge in coronavirus cases.

Kishida avoided paying his respects in person on the anniversary of the war’s end while he was a cabinet minister and LDP official, but has sent offerings to the two Yasukuni festivals that have taken place since he took office last October.

Abe was the last prime minister in recent memory to visit Yasukuni while in office, in 2013 – a visit that outraged both China and South Korea and even drew a rebuke from close ally the US.

Why do centuries-old shrines in Japan suddenly need guards and surveillance cameras?

The US and Japan have become staunch security allies in the decades since the war’s end, but its legacy still haunts East Asia.

Koreans resent Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula, while China has bitter memories of imperial troops’ invasion and occupation of parts of the country from 1931-1945.

Additional reporting by Reuters