Japan and South Korea are two neighboring countries that enjoy many shared aspects. Situated within a proximity of each other, both belong to the American camp on defense and security matters and both are generous hosts of American troops in their soil. Besides, on cultural side they enjoy much deeper common understanding as younger Japanese love K-Pop, while those belonging to upper age group enjoy watching Korean TV serials. South Koreans, on the other hand, love to visit Japan and enjoy Japanese food and culture, particularly manga and anime. In recent years there had been several films coproduced by Japan and South Korea, some of which have also been acclaimed internationally. The most recent example is a South Korean film entitled "Broker," which has been directed by the renowned Japanese film director Hirokazu Kore-eda and for which Kore-eda has been awarded the Best Director's Prize at the just announced Asian Film Award.

However, despite such outward display of close mutual understanding, not everything going well in bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea in recent years. Deep beneath such overt mutual understanding lie a long-held distrust and suspicion rooted on the past historical experiences of Koreans. Korean peninsula came under Japanese colonial rule in 1910 during the period of Japan's expansive military ambition that eventually convinced Japanese leadership that they too deserve to have their own colonial territories where from supply of minerals and cheap human resources could be easily channelized. For Japan would mean following the practice of European imperial powers, but with a Japanese nuance of helping those countries getting rid of western domination.

Japan at the time was in hurry to catch up with the west and rapid industrialization that started right after the Meiji restoration of 1868 allowed the country to embark on the rough sea of colonial ambition, resulting eventually in the subjugation of Formosa and some other parts of China and the eventual annexation of Korean peninsula. Japanese colonial rule in Korea continued until Tokyo's unconditional surrender in 1945 at the end of World War II, paving the way for the Korean peninsula to gain independence and subsequent plunge of the territory into a bloody civil war. An armistice was agreed upon in 1953 by two rival camps that paved the way for the emergence of two independent states that until today are in loggerhead over the political courses they are following.

This recent checkered history of the peninsula turned Japan into a common enemy of both North and South Korea, both of which see Tokyo as the plunderer of country's natural and human resources for its own benefit. Japan normalized diplomatic tie with South Korea in 1965 under immense US pressure and since then there had been sincere attempts on both sides to correct the past mistakes and move forward with a new understanding that would be beneficial for both countries. However, a few unresolved issues related to the past experiences that Koreans went through are from time to time emerging as a serious obstacle hampering the process of forging a better understanding. The problem of the so-called comfort women remains a serious issue hampering the process of normalization of ties at all levels. South Koreans are seeking an official apology from Japan for that past misdeed of the country when the imperial Japanese army forcefully recruited young Korean girls for providing sexual service to Japanese soldiers. Japan, on the other hand, is saying the problem had long been solved when two countries agreed to normalize relations and there is no need for further apology. Moreover, there is also the issue of paying compensation to those who suffered due to that specific colonial practice of Japanese rulers. This matter too has not been resolved to the satisfaction of Koreans.

In addition, there is also the issue of forced labor that Japanese used during the period of occupation. A group of South Koreans claim that they were forced to work for some Japanese companies under inhuman conditions during colonial time and for that they demand compensations to be paid by those Japanese companies.

This war time labor issue resurfaced when the supreme court of South Korea gave a verdict in autumn 2018, ordering two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and the predecessor of what is now Nippon Steel, to pay compensation to Korean plaintiffs who were working for those companies during the war. Japanese government had rejected the ruling by saying that all compensation claims were settled under a bilateral agreement signed in 1965 when relations were normalized. The stand off resulted in rapid deterioration of mutual understanding and two countries stopped their periodic top-level negotiations.

In a bid to resolve this long-standing issue, the South Korean government of President Yoon Suk-Yeol has announced earlier this month a new plan of setting up a foundation that would shoulder the compensation payment. Japan welcomed the move and two countries since then have agreed to resume regular top-level discussions. At a news conference last week, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno revealed that South Korean President will visit Tokyo in mid-March for talks with the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, which would lead to the resumption of top-level reciprocal visits after a 12-year gap.

As a result, all now looks set for a restart of friendly ties between the two neighbors. However, public perception in South Korea over the hurriedly reached decision to set up a foundation for paying compensation and resuming top level meetings with the Japanese leadership is far from positive.

Result of a recently conducted poll in South Korea shows nearly 60 percent are against the move to resolve the wartime labor issue in the format proposed by the government. They say it would undermine the reality of that past situation by showing that not Tokyo, but Seoul compensates wartime Korean laborers. The survey found that 59 percent of respondents are opposed to the plan as they do not see any apology or reparation coming from Japan. And against that, only 35 percent said they feel the solution will help bilateral relations and national interest. There had also been widespread demonstrations in Seoul and other major South Korean cities against the plan.

As a result, it is still too early to predict what real impact this newly reached understanding between Japan and South Korea is going to have on overall bilateral relations. More because president Yoon's position is still quite shaky. In the last presidential election, his majority was a paper-thin one and the opposition is determined to utilize all available possibilities to weaken further that shaky position. Hence, how the situation evolves in coming months will be crucial for both Japan and South Korea to make a new start and move onward.

(Tokyo, March 14, 2023)

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