SEOUL/TOKYO – A day after saying that Emperor Akihito should apologize for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak demanded Wednesday that Tokyo take responsibility for wartime sexual slavery.
Lee was speaking at a ceremony marking the end of World War II, which South Korea celebrates as Liberation Day, Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of Japan’s colonial rule.
Tokyo has already lodged an official complaint over Lee’s demand for an apology from the Emperor, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said.
“First of all, we have not even mentioned (the possibility) of the Emperor visiting South Korea,” Genba said. “I find (Lee’s statement) difficult to understand and extremely regrettable.”
In his speech, Lee referred to Japan as “a close neighbor, a friend that shares basic values and an important partner that we should work with to open the future.”
Sounding a darker note, he added: “However, we have to point out that chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in the Northeast Asian region, as well as bilateral ties.”
“Particularly, the issue involving mobilization of ‘comfort women’ by the Imperial Japanese military goes beyond relations between Korea and Japan,” he said.
Many Korean and other Asian and some Western women were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during the war.
“It was a breach of women’s rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice. We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard,” Lee said.
In Tokyo, Genba countered that the government has been cooperating with South Korea in dealing with various postwar compensation matters, including the comfort women issue.
“It is our understanding that we have been taking (additional) various humanitarian measures” to deal with the sex slave issue, Genba said.
He also warned that Japan would continue to take “necessary action” if Lee continues to stir up nationalist sentiment.
“These are difficult issues that must be dealt with calmly and (Lee’s recent remarks and action) that stir up nationalism will not benefit South Korea,” Genba said. “We will take necessary measures and continue to take a resolute attitude.”
Lee made his demand amid a growing territorial dispute with Tokyo over islands in the Sea of Japan and rekindled sentiments over Japan’s militarist past.
Seoul-Tokyo relations have sharply worsened since Lee on Aug. 10 visited the Seoul-controlled islands, known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan. But in his speech Wednesday, Lee avoided mentioning the territorial dispute.
Lee appears to have tried to preserve ties with Japan by refraining from remarking on the territorial issue, observers said. Following his visit to the islets, Japan threatened to bring the isle row to the International Court of Justice.
Observers expect bilateral relations to remain frosty for now.