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During his Tokyo visit in October 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi signed a joint declaration on the bilateral partnership for the 21st century. In the document, Obuchi expressed “keen remorse” and apologized for the historical fact that Japan, through its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, “imposed great damage and pain” on the South Korean people.

The leaders also adopted an action plan for the Japan-South Korea partnership. The plan called for, among other things:

* Expanded government-level communication channels between the two countries;

* Cooperation regarding disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation and security issues to establish international peace and security;

* Bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation;

* Cooperation for environmental protection, aid and other global issues;and

* Stepped-up grassroots exchanges.

Kim’s visit helped establish the framework for future Japan-South Korea relations. But Japan and South Korea are making only slow progress in promoting mutual understanding as a result of lingering problems over Japan’s past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

A Japan-South Korea forum held Dec. 11 in Tokyo showed that the gap in perceptions between the two nations continues to be wide. The meeting of intellectuals, on the theme of “Japan and Korea: Building a New Partnership,” was co-sponsored by the Global Forum of Japan and the Seoul Forum for International Affairs.

In a keynote speech, Kim Jin Hyun, chairman of the South Korean daily Munhwa Ilbo, said, “Chauvinism, ultranationalism and hegemonic adherence reappeared with renewed vigor in Japan.” He also said Japan couldn’t be trusted to assume a leadership role in Asia “as long as the nation and its government continuously distort and embellish its brutal history of aggression.” Kim said Japan and South Korea should jointly write history books, and urged that documents concerning Japan’s colonial rule of Korea be published. He added that it would be impossible for Japan and South Korea to create a real partnership “without political support and with political leadership blocking these kinds of efforts.”

Masao Okonogi, professor at Keio University, told the forum he felt that Kim’s speech typified Korean perceptions of Japan. He added that South Koreans, who are proud of maintaining a more advanced culture than the Japanese do in the Confucian world, apparently were disturbed by the fact that the Peninsula was colonized by Japan. Okonogi also criticized South Korea for “overreacting” to alleged distortions in history books and to nationalistic trends in Japan. He also said that should North and South Korea end their confrontation and promote cooperation, consideration should be given to the establishment of triangular relations among Japan and the two Koreas.

Hiroyuki Hosoda, a Lower House member, made a speech regarding economic cooperation. He noted that Japan pledged $20 billion worth of aid to South Korea (of which $5 billion was actually implemented) after it was hit by a currency crisis. Referring to Japanese aid to Indonesia and Thailand, Hosoda said Japan is now viewed by Asian neighbors as a “friend” for the first time since World War II.

Ro Sung Tae, editor in chief of the Korea Economic Daily, said South Koreans have “mixed feelings” toward Japan. Ro praised Japan for aiding South Korea when it was hit by a financial crisis. At the same time, Ro said, Japan could have helped even more by arguing more vigorously on behalf of Asia’s special problems to counter unilateral U.S. pressure in connection with aid given by the International Monetary Fund. In doing so, Japan could have played a leading role in Asian affairs, Ro said.

While the forum showed that deep and wide differences remained between Japan and South Korea, Han Seung Soo, a South Korean National Assembly member, praised the participants for exchanging frank opinions in an unprecedented manner.

Japan-South Korean relations are often strained over Japanese history textbooks and the bilateral territorial dispute over Takeshima Island in the Sea of Japan. Sensational media reporting exacerbates the strains.

According to annual opinion polls conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office, only twice in the past 15 years has the number of respondents who felt friendly toward South Korea exceeded the number of those who did not. That happened in 1988, the year the Seoul Olympics were held, and in 1999, one year after Kim’s Tokyo visit.

Every three to five years, the majority view of Japan-South Korea relations alternates between those Japanese who agree that relations are “good” and those who disagree. This phenomenon, which appears to signal periodic improvement and deterioration in bilateral relations, is not seen in relations with other countries.

Japan and South Korea, will cohost the World Cup soccer games in 2002, and will promote various cultural exchange projects in the same year. The South Korean government has opened the country to Japanese pop culture in three stages. In Japan, the South Korean spy movie “Shuri,” which is about the peninsula’s tragic separation into North and the South, was a big hit, and performances of traditional South Korean arts attract huge crowds.

The action program announced by Kim and Obuchi called for exchanges of a total 10,000 junior and senior high school students in 10 years. Mutual understanding between youth of the two nations is essential to improving future Japan-South Korea relations.

Kenichi Ito, governor and executive director of the Global Forum of Japan, says historical issues between Japan and South Korea are not past problems, but current ones. Japanese should not forget the lessons of history in trying to establish new relations with South Korea in the 21st century.

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