In a speech marking Liberation Day, President Lee Myung-bak urged Tokyo to take "responsible measures" to compensate women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. "Japan is a close neighbor, a friend that shares basic values and an important partner that we should work with to open the future," Lee said. "But we have to point out that chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in Northeast Asia as well as bilateral ties."
Lee also explained the purpose of his recent visit to the Dokdo islets. He added Japan's emperor should sincerely apologize for the country's colonial rule if he wants to visit Korea, and "does not need to come" if he is going to offer an insincere apology. Tokyo lodged a formal protest in response to Lee's comments, while Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he "cannot understand the remarks."
There are often tough issues in the relations between countries, but committed efforts by both sides can lead to solutions. If Japan displays a sincere attitude, the present problems in bilateral relations can be solved. But Seoul and Tokyo remain gridlocked over Dokdo and the women who were forced into sexual slavery because Japan is refusing to resolve them.
Japan has maintained its dubious claim to Korea's Dokdo islets simply because they were not expressly included in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which formally ended Japan's position as an imperial power. Japan forcefully annexed Dokdo in February 1905 to gain an advantage in the East Sea during the final stage of the Russo-Japanese War. And in May the same year, Japan started annexing the rest of Korea.
If Japan sincerely regrets its occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, it must give up its absurd claim to Dokdo, yet only this month it has once again lists Dokdo as part of its own territory in its Defense White Paper, and it still includes this arrant nonsense in school textbooks.
It would be understandable if the Japanese government finds it difficult to expressly renounce the claim at a time when it feels its hold on voters slipping. But if its leaders have any common sense, they should be able to exercise a modicum of self-restraint.
The international community is gauging Japan's moral sense by the way it treats the issue of women it forced into sexual slavery. The issue could be resolved quite quickly if Tokyo had the will to do it. But when the president of Korea urged Japan to offer a sincere apology, its prime minister made no response, and instead demanded the removal of a statue set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to honor these victims of state terror. How can the leaders of the two countries truly communicate under these circumstances?
Japan must surely realize that the reason for heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries is its suborn refusal to do what it needs to do. This sentiment is shared by many Asians who know about Japan's past atrocities. But the Korean government too must not fall into the mode of thinking that it can say whatever it wants to say, because that inevitably exacerbates conflict.
Seoul has to approach the Dokdo and "comfort women" issues calmly, using international support to bolster its administrative control over the islets and creating a diplomatic climate where Japan has no choice but to accept its wartime atrocities and offer a sincere apology and compensation for victims.