South Korea, Japan Strike Calmer Note After Months of Tension

Isabel Reynolds and Jihye Lee
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South Korea, Japan Strike Calmer Note After Months of Tension

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Japan and South Korea are showing signs they may be willing to ease the tensions of recent months, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in softening criticism of Japan in a speech marking the anniversary of the end of World War II.

Moon’s remarks -- in which he also said he would welcome an invitation to talks with Tokyo -- came days after the Japanese government calmed fears over trade ties by announcing it had approved the first exports to South Korea under a stricter monitoring system. It remains to be seen how the two U.S. allies deal with more key milestones in the coming weeks.

“Both sides recognize that this is a path they don’t really want to be on,” said Carl Baker, executive director of the Pacific Forum, a Hawaii-based research institute. “At this point, you’re looking for signs that both of them are coming to their senses. We certainly need to see more evidence.”

The neighbors -- two of Asia’s largest economies -- are being closely watched for clues as to whether they will ratchet up or calm the hostility that has spiraled since last year. Disputes over whether Japan has sufficiently atoned for its 1910-45 occupation of the Korean Peninsula sit at the heart of the feud, with South Korean efforts to secure more compensation for individual victims enraging Tokyo.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent his customary offering to a controversial Tokyo war shrine Thursday. While the act prompted a rebuke from South Korea, it indicated that Abe would avoid a more provocative personal visit. Emperor Naruhito included a reference to “deep remorse,” in his first speech at an annual ceremony honoring the war dead following his accession to the throne in May.

“Examining the past doesn’t mean holding onto the past, but taking a step from the past toward the future,” South Korea’s Moon said at a ceremony celebrating the end of the Japanese occupation. “We ask Japan to reflect on the misfortune it caused for neighboring countries, and to lead the peace and prosperity of East Asia together.”

Rising Tensions

The politically charged anniversary fell less than two weeks after Abe’s cabinet approved the unprecedented step of removing South Korea from a listed of trusted export destinations. The decision, which comes into effect Aug. 28, prompted Seoul to say it would respond in kind. While Japan says its move was based on national security concerns, Moon has denounced it as economic retaliation over court rulings in favor of forced-labor claims.

The disagreement has consequences for U.S. efforts to fortify its Asian security network against threats from China and North Korea, with South Korean officials saying they might withdraw from a bilateral agreement with Japan on the exchange of military information. The decision must be made by Aug. 24.

U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed frustration with the dispute, saying last week the two sides have “got to get along because it puts us in a very bad position.” Senior foreign ministry officials from the two countries may meet as soon as this week to seek a way out of the standoff, according to reports in South Korean and Japanese media.

Yet public anger continues to simmer in South Korea, where Tokyo’s tighter export controls spurred some to boycott Japanese goods. About 2,000 people from 10 organizations gathered around noon near the Seoul city hall and marched toward the Japanese embassy in the rain, calling for Abe’s apology and the country’s reparations for forced labors, the Yonhap News Agency reported. A larger protest was planned for the evening.

Abe has long sought to turn the page on history, saying in 2015 that future generations couldn’t be expected to keep apologizing. He has removed references to the destruction wrought by Japan during the war from his own annual speech, the text of which was little changed this year.

The day is also marked at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the memory of Japan’s war dead and seen in China and South Korea as a symbol of its past militarism because 14 Class A war criminals are memorialized there. Abe has not paid respects at the shrine in person since 2013, but a cross-party group of about 50 lawmakers made a mass pilgrimage Thursday, public broadcaster NHK said.

For his part, Moon stayed away from the Wednesday unveiling of a new statue honoring so-called comfort women, who were trafficked to Japanese Imperial Army brothels across Asia before and during the war, instead opting to send a message.

Payments to victims and their surviving relatives from funds Japan provided to a foundation that South Korea later disbanded have also been allowed to re-start after a hiatus, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported earlier this week.

“After the boycotts and general tenor in South Korea lately, I think it will take a lot to convince Abe that he can trust the South Koreans to abide by an agreement they reach -- or whether there’s even an agreement to be reached,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan analyst for Teneo Intelligence in Washington.

(A previous version of this story was corrected to show that Moon Jae-in didn’t attend comfort women event.)

--With assistance from Sohee Kim, Ruth Pollard and Henry Hoenig.

To contact the reporters on this story: Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at;Jihye Lee in Seoul at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at, Karen Leigh

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