President Lee Myung-bak urged Japan on Wednesday to take responsible steps to compensate women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. In a televised speech marking Liberation Day, Lee said the sexual enslavement of women was a violation of "universal human rights and historic justice."
Earlier this month, Lee became the first Korean president to visit the easternmost islets of Dokdo and said on Tuesday that Japan's emperor should sincerely apologize for the country's colonial rule if he wants to visit Korea.
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba on Wednesday said Tokyo lodged a formal protest with the Korean government over Lee's comments about the emperor. On the same day, Jin Matsubara, the chairman of Japan's National Public Safety Commission, and Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Yuichiro Hata paid their respects at the militarist Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the remains of convicted war criminals among Japan's war dead.
It was the first time that Japanese cabinet members visited the shrine since the Democratic Party rose to power in 2009.
Elsewhere diplomatic tensions mounted when seven Chinese activists landed on the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands which are disputed between China and Japan. The Japanese Coast Guard arrested the activists, and Japan's Deputy Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae summoned Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua to lodge a protest.
In response, China's Foreign Ministry urged Tokyo to ensure the safety of the detained activists. Beijing also criticized the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by the cabinet members and urged Tokyo to "face up to its history of invading other countries and abide by its promise to apologize for its acts."
Not all is well between Korea and China either. The bones of contention are violent clashes last year between Korean maritime police and Chinese fishermen who were caught fishing illegally in Korea's exclusive economic zone, and the detention and alleged torture of a prominent Korean activist in a Chinese prison for helping North Korean defectors.
Korea and China mark 20 years of diplomatic relations this year, but bilateral relations are nowhere near their goal of becoming "strategic partners." CNN warned that all these disputes could provoke a "new Cold War in Asia."
But civilian ties between Korea, China and Japan, which together account for 19.6 percent of the world's GDP, have become a great deal closer over the last 10 years. According to the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, the number of Koreans, Chinese and Japanese people visiting each other's countries almost doubled from 6.58 million in 1999 to 16.55 million in 2010.
The amount of trade between the three countries rose 3.5 times from US$129.4 billion to $588.4 billion over the same period.
But official relations lag far behind. Politicians in the three countries often appear more interested in using regional conflicts as excuses to bolster their cachet at home rather than try to resolve cross-border disputes.
"There is a tendency to drum up nationalist sentiment whenever Korea, China and Japan face elections," said Yun Duk-min of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. "We need a shift in mentality over history and territorial disputes and jointly strive toward easing tensions."