Ja­pan and South Korea: Happy at Last?

Abe has apol­o­gized for a war crime. Now both coun­tries have to per­suade cit­i­zens to get along

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Ja­pan’s re­luc­tance to fully ac­knowl­edge its colo­nial and wartime crimes in Korea, where it forced lo­cal women to work in mil­i­tary brothels, has long been a source of deep ac­ri­mony be­tween the two coun­tries. But Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe has fi­nally said Ja­pan is sorry. With an agree­ment an­nounced on Dec. 28, Ja­pan will pro­vide 1 bil­lion yen ($8.3 mil­lion) to a fund for vic­tims. Both sides say the is­sue is re­solved, and they have agreed not to raise it in fo­rums such as the United Na­tions.

Do­mes­ti­cally, how­ever, both Abe and South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye will have a lot of work to do to man­age the back­lash: Abe from Ja­pan’s never-say-sorry right wing, and Park from South Kore­ans who think the deal is a sell­out. Out­bursts from both sides have tor­pe­doed pre­vi­ous at­tempts at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. A bit­ter ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute over small islets in the Sea of Ja­pan lingers. And for all the ties of tourism and trade, pub­lic sen­ti­ment in each coun­try is neg­a­tive to­ward the other.

To over­come those pit­falls, Ja­panese and Korean lead­ers must reem­pha­size to their cit­i­zens the ben­e­fits of bet­ter ties. In ad­di­tion to eco­nomic and cul­tural re­la­tions, closer co­or­di­na­tion can help on ev­ery­thing from im­prov­ing dis­as­ter re­lief to lev­er­ag­ing for­eign aid. Bet­ter mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence re­la­tions can help counter North Korea’s bursts of bel­liger­ence and its steadily de­vel­op­ing arse­nal. And a more united front can help both coun­tries pro­vide a coun­ter­bal­ance to the rise of China.

The U.S., mean­while, must per­form a diplo­matic bal­anc­ing act in get­ting its two most im­por­tant Asian al­lies to make nice. It can en­cour­age and dis­cour­age as ap­pro­pri­ate. And it can cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for the na­tions to work to­gether more closely. One thing it shouldn’t try to do is me­di­ate, which could in­crease the risks of mis­un­der­stand­ing.

Nei­ther an apol­ogy nor its ac­cep­tance can erase history. But they are of­ten a pre­req­ui­site for a shared fu­ture. <BW>

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