Seoul and Japan come together on economic crisis

Posted in Koreas , Japan | 13-Jan-09 | Author: Choe Sang-Hun| Source: International Herald Tribune

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak (R) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso after a joint news conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on January 12, 2009.

SEOUL: The global financial crisis prompted the leaders of South Korea and Japan to set aside their countries' historical disputes on Monday and agree to cooperate to meet immediate economic challenges.

But Korean victims of Japan's World War II brutalities voiced distress after the summit meeting and ensuing joint news conference held by President Lee Myung Bak and Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan. They accused Lee of sacrificing South Korea's national pride for short-term economic gains.

"We did not deal directly with the issue of history," Aso said at the conference. "President Lee agreed to my view that Asia should be the growth center in the world and play a big role in the global economy recovery."

Lee said that 20 medium-size Japanese companies had agreed to invest in electronics and machinery components factories in South Korea. Such investments will help reduce South Korea's chronic trade deficit with Japan, which amounts to $30 billion annually, he said.

An exponent of "pragmatic diplomacy," Lee has said he would not demand any new apology from Japan for its colonial rule. The conservative leader has lamented that disputes rooted in Japan's colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945 had deprived two neighbors of opportunities to improve economic ties and work more closely on countering the threat of nuclear development in North Korea.

Although Lee was not the first Korean leader to take such a stance, that approach raised concerns among South Koreans, especially after Aso took office last September. Aso had infuriated Koreans with past comments that they saw as defending Japan's wartime atrocities and denigrating Korea and other former Japanese colonies. A company run by his family had used Korean forced labor at its mines before and during the war.

"Today's summit was a collusion between the two right-wing leaders who share a common lack of sense of responsibility when it comes to historical issues," said Pak Han Yong, a senior researcher at the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, which studies the actions of Japan and its Korean collaborators during the war.

The two countries are each other's third-largest trading partners. Two-way trade totaled $82 billion in 2007. But Koreans still harbor deep resentment for Japan's colonial rule.

Past governmental agreements to bolster economic ties floundered because of such unresolved issues. Lee's conciliatory overtures toward Japan hit a snag in July when Tokyo urged schools to teach Japan's territorial claim to an island held by South Korea.

"If Lee and Aso think they can bury the historical problems under the carpet of the economy, they will soon find they are wrong," said Kang Joo Hye, secretary general at the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Kang's group supports Korean women forced to work in brothels for the Japanese Army during World War II.