SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sent an offering to a controversial war shrine in Tokyo on Sunday (Oct 17), prompting South Korea to express "deep disappointment and regrets."
Kishida stopped short of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in time for its two-day autumn festival that ran through Monday, while his predecessor Yoshihide Suga visited it.
The shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan's past militarism, honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 figures convicted by an allied tribunal in 1948 as Class-A war criminals for their role in World War II.
A statement from Seoul's Foreign Ministry urged Japanese leaders to "squarely face history and show by action their humble introspection on and genuine self-reflection for the past history."
Kishida's ritual offering to the shrine is the latest reminder of difficulties in letting South Korea and Japan leave the long-running dispute over their shared history behind them.
It came two days after Kishida held his first phone talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in which a spokesperson for Moon said they shared an understanding on the need for developing relations between the two countries in a future-oriented manner.
Moon and Kishida agreed to step up diplomatic efforts to resolve a protracted row over issues stemming from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Seoul-Tokyo ties have been at their lowest ebb in recent years with Japan reacting strongly against court rulings here on compensation for South Korean victims of wartime forced labour and sexual enslavement. In 2019, Tokyo imposed curbs on the export of high-tech materials to South Korea in an apparent reprisal against a 2018 ruling by the country's top court that Japanese firms should pay compensation to forced labour victims.
Japan has claimed all reparation issues related to its colonisation of the peninsula were settled by a 1965 treaty with South Korea that normalised bilateral ties.
The Moon administration has been criticised for neglecting efforts to find a diplomatic solution to historical issues with Tokyo and letting them be further complicated by local court judgements.
Shortly after coming to office in 2017, it crippled an agreement that the government of Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye reached with Japan in 2015 to resolve the wartime sexual slavery issue. Its decision to dissolve the foundation set up with money offered by Tokyo to compensate South Korean victims frustrated Kishida, who played a key role in working out the accord with Seoul as Japan's foreign minister.
Since late last year, Seoul has signalled its willingness to improve ties with Tokyo, with Moon affirming in January's news conference that the 2015 deal was a formal accord between the two sides.
But Friday's phone talks between Moon and Kishida showed South Korea and Japan still had many obstacles to huddle over to settle historical discord. Moon asked Tokyo to be more active in holding consultations to find diplomatic solutions, while Kishida urged Seoul to make a proper response, based on what he called Japan's consistent position.
The two leaders, meanwhile, agreed on the importance of enhancing cooperation between their nations in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue and preparing for a post-pandemic era.
Kishida, who is considered more moderate than his two immediate predecessors, Suga and Shinzo Abe, has been expected to take a more practical approach in handling relations with South Korea in the long run.
He has mentioned the need to mend frayed ties with Seoul from the viewpoint that trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the US is crucial to counter nuclear threats from North Korea.
But he appears set to stay on the course taken by Suga and Abe to avoid giving the impression of being soft on Seoul ahead of Japan's lower house election and probably through its upper house election next year. He seemed to highlight such a stance by delaying a phone call with Moon behind those with the leaders of all other major countries.
The phone talks between Moon and Kishida occurred 11 days after Kishida took office.
Assuming that Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party wins the upcoming polls, it may be a reasonable choice for the Kishida administration to wait for the launch of South Korea's next government in May to push for full-scale efforts to address pending issues with Seoul.
It may have to be ready to lift export curbs on South Korea in response to a more flexible and realistic approach that it hopes Moon's successor will take.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.