OSAKA – Leaders of Japan’s Korean community welcomed the election of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s next president, saying the victory offers a chance to rebalance and reform Japan’s often contentious relationship with its Asian neighbor.
But they noted a host of thorny problems related to Japan’s wartime history in Korea, such as the issue of Korean “comfort women,” remain, meaning it could be a while before solid progress becomes visible.
“Moon has emphasized the importance of dialogue with Japan, and we hope he will re-establish it,” said Kwak Jin Woong, director of the Osaka-based Korea NGO Center. “But there are still lots of outstanding problems between Japan and South Korea that will take time to be resolved.”
The most pressing historical issue is that of the Korean comfort women, Japan’s euphemism to describe the girls and young women who were forced to provide sex to Japanese military personnel prior to and during World War II. After activists erected a statue of a comfort women outside the Japanese consulate in Busan similar to one that stands in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, Japan withdrew its ambassador in protest.
During the presidential campaign, however, a Moon adviser said he would not make the comfort women issue a starting point for relations with Japan. Japanese Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine returned to Seoul last month.
Kwak said the Japanese government doesn’t have deep connections to Moon.
“However, he has a wider base of support among Koreans in Japan, including NGO groups, than some past presidents,” Kwak said.
He also said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to use the tensions on the Korean Peninsula for his domestic political purposes were hurting Japan’s diplomacy with South Korea.
“By building up fears about North Korea, Abe is pushing the need for constitutional revision,” he said. “The Abe administration needs to consider the people of South Korea as well and the effect on Japan’s relations with South Korea by pumping up such fears.”
In a statement to Kyodo News, the pro-Seoul Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) said that it had high expectations for Moon’s victory after former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and dismissal from office created political instability and exhaustion among voters.
“We hope that the new president will work to further improve relations between Japan and South Korea,” the statement said.
The political tensions between Japan and South Korea over the comfort women issue as well as fears of North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs appears to be having a limited impact on people-to-people exchanges. The first three months of 2017 saw more than 1.7 million South Koreans visit Japan, a 24 percent increase over the same period in 2016.
Over 614,000 Japanese visited South Korea during the first three months of this year, an average increase of 21 percent over the same period last year.
“People-to-people relations are good, especially in Osaka’s Koreatown,” Kwak said.
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