Oh Yeh-sol loves watching Japanese cartoons, eating sushi and drinking sake. She believes that Tokyo’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule of Korea should be a thing of the past.
“I think it’s better to get along with them and pursue exchanges,” said Oh, 26, who recently started offering a language exchange program for Korean and Japanese speakers in her Seoul cafe.
With Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso arriving in Seoul today, many South Koreans, including South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, said it was time to look beyond the troubled past and build closer ties with Japan.
People “say Korea and Japan are ‘close yet distant countries, but we should be ‘close and close’ countries,” the Japan-born Lee told Aso during a private meeting on the sidelines of a first-ever three-way meeting with China’s leader last month. “And Korea is ready to become so.”
Lee has pledged not to seek a new apology from Japan for the use of forced labor and sex slaves during colonial rule. He also resumed top-level visits, which had been suspended since 2005 to protest former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to a Tokyo war shrine.
The past, however, has a way of bubbling up.
Lee’s overtures took a serious hit in July when Tokyo announced it would recommend that a government teaching manual include Japan’s claim to uninhabited islets claimed by both countries.
South Korea recalled its ambassador in Tokyo for three weeks and heightened security near the islets. Activists staged near-daily protests in front of the Japanese Embassy. Many scholars and newspaper editorials demanded Lee toughen policy on Japan.
“Koreans view Japan’s claim to [the islets] as its historic aggression,” said Jin Chang-soo, a Japan expert at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, a policy think tank.
Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper reported that Tokyo planned to conduct a maritime research survey in waters between the two countries. The Japanese government denied the report, but South Korea still warned Tokyo against the plan amid media speculation that such a survey could include waters near the islets.
Despite such hiccups, growing economic ties are bringing the two countries closer together.
The countries are major commercial partners, with two-way trade reaching US$82.6 billion in 2007. About 2.6 million South Koreans traveled to Japan in 2007, while 2.2 million Japanese visited South Korea.
The global financial crisis has bolstered cooperation, with the two countries increasing a bilateral currency swap facility to about US$20 billion.
Lee meets Aso tomorrow, his sixth meeting with a Japanese leader since taking office 11 months ago. South Korean officials said the meeting would focus on economic cooperation and efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. The islets are not on the agenda.
Among Koreans who still harbor strong resentment against Japan are those who were sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II. Many feel that earlier apologies by Japanese leaders have been insincere and are demanding a fresh one.
“They punched, kicked and beat me when I cried and refused to take off my clothes though I was only a 13-year-old girl at the time,” 82-year-old Gil Won-ok said. “We don’t have many years to live. If we all die, to whom will Japan apologize?”