Japan and South Korea need to use the recent UNESCO decision awarding world cultural heritage status to sites proposed by both countries as an opportunity to improve their troubled bilateral relationship, whose chilliness is symbolized by the absence of a one-on-one meeting between the top leaders of the close neighbors for four years. Both Tokyo and Seoul need to realize that the bitter diplomatic wrangling over the heritage site issue — which is supposed to be free of political considerations — was the direct result of the poor state of ties.

In view of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned statement marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, the issue of “comfort women” — whose numbers included many Koreans — as well as lingering ripples from the differences in the two governments’ position over the heritage site issue, it is imperative that leaders and officials of Tokyo and Seoul strive to minimize friction between the two countries and to turn 2015 — which also marks half a century after they normalized diplomatic ties — into a mutually beneficial year.

The UNESCO World Heritage committee on July 5 granted cultural heritage status to 23 industrial sites symbolizing Japan’s rapid industrialization following the Meiji Restoration and to eight historical sites dating back to South Korea’s ancient kingdom of Baekje — after the wrangling over historical perception between Japan and South Korea was finally resolved.

South Korea had opposed adding the Japanese sites to the heritage list, saying that some 57,900 Koreans were sent to seven of the sites in Kyushu, which included coal mines, a shipyard and a steel mill, as forced laborers during WWII. Japan countered by arguing that the period in which Koreans were forced to work at the sites is different from the period — from the 1850s to 1910 — which Japan cited in its efforts to have the 23 facilities added to the UNESCO list. The latter date, 1910, when products from the Yawata steel mill — one of the seven sites — were exhibited at the Japan-Britain Exhibition in London, marked the year in which Japan was globally recognized as an industrialized country.

It looked as if the wrangling had come to an end when the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea on June 21 reached a basic agreement to cooperate in the effort to get their respective sites on the heritage list. But the decision on the Japanese sites had to be postponed from the scheduled July 4 to July 5 to give Japan and South Korea time to reach a final agreement.

After the World Heritage committee made its decision, Japanese representative Kuni Sato said Japan would take steps that will help people understand that in the 1940s a large number of Koreans “were brought against their will to some facilities and were forced to work under severe conditions” and that the Japanese government adopted a policy of drafting people for work during WWII. He added that Japan will include appropriate measures to keep victims (of the drafting) in people’s memories, such as setting up information centers, in its explanations for the designated sites.

Despite the UNESCO decision and the Japanese representative’s promise, the seeds of future friction remain. The Japanese government translated “forced to work” into “hataraka sareta” in Japanese — a more casual expression, for the domestic audience, insisting that it did not mean Tokyo’s admission of forced labor. But South Korea insists that the statement refers to labor characterized by coercion.

Japan needs to follow up on what Sato promised. It also should not be forgotten that not only Koreans but also Chinese and Allied prisoners of war were forced to work in wartime Japan, including at the industrial sites noted by South Korea.

Japan takes the position that all compensation issues arising from Japan’s colonial rule of Korea were settled when the two countries concluded the Japan-South Korea Basic Treaty in 1965, but many South Koreans, especially workers who were forced to labor in Japan and their families, think otherwise.

The top leaders of both countries need to make efforts to prevent such differences from marring the bilateral relationship. To do that, they must first strive to rebuild mutual trust between their governments.

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