Repair unraveling Tokyo-Seoul ties

In the past month, Japan-South Korean bilateral ties have been rocked by several contentious issues: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26; the opening of a memorial hall on Jan. 19 in Harbin, China, in honor of Ahn Jun Geun, a Korean independence activist who assassinated Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and the first resident general of Korea; and new NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii’s controversial remark on Jan. 25 about wartime sex slaves. Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye must make serious efforts to put bilateral relations back on track and strive to build mutual trust.

The opening of the memorial hall to honor Ahn represents a destabilizing development in the triangular relationship among Japan, China and South Korea. When Park visited China last June and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, she proposed erecting a simple stone monument in honor of Ahn. China responded to her proposal by building something far greater. It opened a memorial hall dedicated to Ahn at a prominent location facing a busy square in Harbin. Ahn assassinated Ito at Harbin Station on Oct. 26, 1909, in protest of Japan’s rule over the Korean Peninsula, and was executed on March 26, 1910, by Japanese authorities.

The opening of the hall signified China’s readiness to form a united front with South Korea against Japan in dealing with issues related to historical perception. And the Abe administration can claim much of the credit for bringing the two together. Several years ago, China ordered the removal of a simple bronze statue near the station out of consideration for ties with Japan. But Abe’s nationalistic actions since taking office have significantly changed Beijing’s outlook, as the new memorial to Ahn demonstrates.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticized the move by China and South Korea by depicting Ahn as a “terrorist” and stated that China and South Korea’s forming of a joint front on the basis of a one-sided view of Ahn’s activities will not contribute to peace and stability in the region.

But his remarks are insensitive in view of the sentiment of Koreans, who regard Ahn both as a national hero and a righteous man, and don’t serve Japanese interests either. Suga and other Japanese officials should realize that his remarks only serve to further harm Japanese ties with South Korea and push Seoul closer to Beijing. Moreover, Ahn was not necessarily anti-Japanese. He was a pan-Asianist who believed that China, Korea and Japan must develop close ties to counter the Western colonial powers.

For its part, South Korea, in particular President Park, should refrain from deliberately harping on issues that it knows will inflame Japanese sentiment and refrain from conducting diplomacy that appears aimed at sidelining Japan. If South Korea continues to pursue this line in its diplomacy, it will create an obstacle in the path of international efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles development and will increase instability in the region. Park would do well to pay attention to concerns within her country that Seoul’s chilly ties with Tokyo may damage the South Korean economy.

According to an opinion poll of South Koreans that a South Korean think tank carried out after Abe’s Yasukuni visit, a majority of respondents think that South Korea should make efforts to improve its relations with Japan and a nearly half of them want a summit between South Korean and Japanese leaders.

Both Abe and Park must reflect upon the fact that nothing positive took place in Japan-South Korea bilateral relations last year. They should make all-out efforts to put bilateral ties back on a positive path in 2014.