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South Korea, Japan Remain at Odds on Past

Leaders focus on historical accounts in the former occupier's textbooks and glide over the region's current nuclear arms issues.

June 21, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The leaders of Japan and South Korea wrapped up a meeting here Monday with what was at best an agreement to disagree about how Japan is handling the legacy of its occupation of the Korean peninsula.

The past dominated the present during the meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. The leaders spent more than an hour and a half discussing historical accounts in Japanese textbooks of the 1910-45 occupation period and 10 minutes on the more immediate problems of the day, such as North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

"In some areas there was understanding, but there was no agreement," a grim-faced Roh said during a joint news conference held under gray skies outside the presidential residence.

The only modest achievement the leaders could point to was creation of a working-level committee on historical issues. Both sides said they wanted to strengthen political and economic cooperation, but Roh added, "It is difficult to say that peace in the future can be guaranteed with just that."

Relations have been particularly tense in recent months because of Japan's renewed claims to a barren cluster of islets administered by South Korea. And South Koreans are angry over Japan's approval of a textbook they believe whitewashes the brutality of the occupation period, when Japan pressed men into forced labor and women into sexual slavery.

Along with the Chinese, the Koreans object to annual pilgrimages by Koizumi to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including 14 people convicted of Class A war crimes.

"We take seriously the feeling of the Korean people about the past," Koizumi said during the news conference. He later was quoted telling Japanese reporters that his visits to the shrine were not a glorification of war, but an antiwar statement of his own.

"I frankly told [Roh] that I visit the shrine with my strong determination not to wage war again," Koizumi said.

Roh suggested that Japan set up an alternative memorial site to avoid the controversy over Yasukuni.

A poll published Monday by Japan's Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said 50% of Japanese voters opposed Koizumi's visits to the shrine, and 42% thought they should continue.

Strained relations between Japan and its neighbors have been a source of discomfort to many in the diplomatic community, who fear the tension could detract from the region's more pressing concerns.

Both Japan and South Korea, along with the United States, China and Russia, have participated in six-country talks to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

"I hope they will move on. There are so many issues of mutual concern for Japan and South Korea," said Dorian Prince, the European Commission ambassador to South Korea. "If the founding fathers of the European Union had waited for France and Germany to agree on their history textbooks, they wouldn't have gotten very far."

Analysts have said relations between Japan and South Korea are at their lowest point since normalization in 1965.

Before Koizumi's visit, riot police lined the motorcade route through downtown Seoul and formed a barricade to protect the Japanese Embassy. About a dozen protesters broke into the Japanese cultural center and were arrested.

However, the number of people involved in the demonstrations was relatively small. Even amid the placards reading "Koizumi go home" and "Boycott Japanese goods," many people had kind words for Japan.

"We love the Japanese people. We don't want to break off economic cooperation," said Kwon Byeong Chan, a 35-year-old teacher who was one of the organizers of a demonstration Monday outside the Japanese Embassy.

"We just want the Japanese to recognize the truth."

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