4:39 am - Monday November 9, 2015

Japan-Korea relations in the freezer even as Tokyo and Beijing shake hands

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Seoul: Kim Bok-dong was 14 when she was abducted and forced into eight years of sexual slavery in the Japanese army barracks of southern China and South-east Asia.

“There are no words that can describe what soldiers did to me,” she recounted. “At the end of each day I could not even sit up.”Seven decades later, as world leaders assemble at the APEC forum in Beijing, Tokyo’s failure to fully acknowledge its responsibility for the suffering of thousands of women like Ms Kim has taken on unexpected geostrategic significance.Their history questions are what prevent South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye from sitting down with her Japanese neighbour, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after 20 months in office.

They have drawn Ms Park much closer to her APEC host, China’s President Xi Jinping, whose own history war with Japan and warnings of a return of Japanese “militarism” have been backed by armadas of naval and paramilitary vessels in the contested waters of the East China Sea. Their history questions are what prevent South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye from sitting down with her Japanese neighbour, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, after 20 months in office.

They have drawn Ms Park much closer to her APEC host, China’s President Xi Jinping, whose own history war with Japan and warnings of a return of Japanese “militarism” have been backed by armadas of naval and paramilitary vessels in the contested waters of the East China Sea. The South Korean leader appears to be sticking to her position even as Mr Xi and Mr Abe shook hands on Monday.

Ms Park also appears to have run ahead of public opinion. Two-thirds of Koreans say they are in favour of closer security relations with Japan in response to a rising China, according to the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, while a majority say they would like to see a bilateral summit to discuss historical questions.

Ms Kim, the 86-year-old survivor, said she was angry that the Japanese government has refused to give a dignified apology.

But even she told Fairfax that there was little that her president could sort out with Mr Abe by refusing to talk with him. “They should meet, meet and settle the issue,” she said.

Commentators, analysts and diplomats point to a range of possible explanations for Ms Park’s ongoing refusal to meet Mr Abe, mostly relating to her father, dictator Park Chung-hee.

Some say she has surrounded herself with her father’s conservative contemporaries and cut herself off from good advice. Others speculate that she is over-compensating for her father’s intolerance of civil society or his wartime record of active collaboration with the Japanese.

Unlike in China, where students, cinemagoers and media consumers are force-fed a steady diet of anti-Japanese propaganda, however, Korean criticism of Japan tends to be focused on specific official actions.

At the War and Human Rights Museum, colloquially known as the Comfort Women Museum, the first tourists to arrive for the day are a group of Japanese pastors.

They tour the hall with headphone guides, reading the diaries of victims and soldiers and listening to why so many halmuhnee – grandmothers – have chosen to reclaim their history and pride by speaking out.

And three in every 10 names on the museum’s donor board, it turns out, are Japanese.

“I am deeply embarrassed,” said one of the pastors, Yoshinobo Hasogawa. “We are here for repentance and reconciliation, through the gospel.”

Mr Hasogawa and his group went on to speak at the weekly “Wednesday protest”, outside the gates of the Japanese embassy, which Ms Kim and a diminishing group of able-bodied survivors have been attending for more than 20 years.

Ms Kim, for her part, had no trouble distinguishing between the actions of Japanese people, like Mr Hasogawa, and the Japanese government.
“It’s the Japanese government that is bad, [we] never say the people are bad,” she said. “[We feel] thankful and grateful as they support us by coming here.”

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