Japan, South Korea tensions renewed at World War II ceremonies

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (above) will give a speech to mark what is known as National Liberation Day. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - Tense ties between major US allies Japan and South Korea are set to be tested at ceremonies on Saturday (Aug 15) to remember Japan's World War II surrender 75 years ago that ended its brutal colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

In Seoul, President Moon Jae-in will give a speech to mark what is known as National Liberation Day. He is expected to offer comments about relations that have plummeted to their worst in decades after Korean courts ruled that two Japanese firms must pay compensation to Koreans forced decades ago to work in mines and factories powering Japan's imperial war machine.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to have low key events in Tokyo, so as to avoid any direct collision with his neighbour, which could inflate the bilateral tensions further. Mr Moon, who offered an olive branch for talks with Tokyo last year, is expected this year to avoid inflammatory comments that could further escalate tensions.

Any renewed acrimony between America's two most powerful allies in Asia could prove troublesome for President Donald Trump, as his administration tries to curtail the nuclear threat from North Korea and seeks support as it steps up its pressure campaign against China, trying to contain Beijing's push into the South China Sea.

Mr Moon and Mr Abe have found support at home for taking a hard line against each other. But they both have taken cautious moves in recent years on the anniversary, in a sign that they are aware of the dangers of using the day to overtly antagonise the other.

Mr Abe usually marks the anniversary by sending a ceremonial gift via an aide to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 14 wartime leaders convicted as Class A war criminals alongside other war dead. Japan's Jiji Press has reported he plans to do the same this year. A personal visit to a shrine viewed by some as a symbol of Japan's past militarism would be seen by Seoul as crossing a diplomatic red line.

Apart from the disputes surrounding colonial-era labour, the two US allies are also squaring off at the World Trade Organisation over Tokyo's decision to restrict exports of electronics components vital for South Korea's tech sector.

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