Park places future over past with Japan

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Park places future over past with Japan

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President Park Geun-hye and performers sing the Korean national anthem at a concert in World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong, Seoul, Saturday night to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. [Joint Press Corps]

President Park Geun-hye emphasized improving ties between Korea and Japan in her speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day on Saturday, opting not to directly confront Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over historical issues.

In a much-anticipated speech, Park expressed her desire to improve bilateral ties between the two neighbors that have been at a stalemate. The two leaders have not held a face-to-face meeting since Park took office more than two years ago.

“While considerable difficulties remain, it is high time for us to move forward to a new future guided by a correct view of history,” Park said. “I also look forward to serving together the cause of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world in a way that does justice to our standing in the international community.”

She also took note of the message delivered by her Japanese counterpart a day before, saying that Abe upheld the positions “articulated by previous Japanese cabinets, based on its apologies and remorse for how Japan’s aggression and colonial rule caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries in Asia.”

Park, nonetheless, pointed out that Prime Minister Abe’s speech failed to fulfill expectations by neighboring countries that he would be forthright in apologizing for Japan’s wartime wrongdoing.

In his speech on Friday, Abe reaffirmed apologies issued by past governments, which expressed remorse for Japan’s past actions, but did not issue a direct apology of his own.

While Park expressed her disappointment with Abe’s statement, her overall tone signaled a willingness to improve ties between Seoul and Tokyo, which have been frozen in recent years.

At one point, she stressed that close cooperation between Korea and Japan “is essential to the peace and prosperity of both countries and the rest of East Asia.”

Expectations were high earlier this year that Seoul and Tokyo could break the ice, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the reopening of diplomatic ties between the nations. The two have yet to produce anything tangible, despite talks of arranging a summit between the leaders.

Experts say Park’s speech reflected the need felt by the Korean government to improve ties with Tokyo, as Washington has been edging closer towards the Abe cabinet in an apparent bid to keep a resurgent China in check.

“Despite Abe’s statement [that fell short of a forthright apology], Park stressed ‘renewed cooperation’ with Japan,” said Kim Sung-han, professor of international relations at Korea University and a former foreign affairs vice minister.

“That terms explains all the determination by Korea to improve ties with Japan.”

Park’s note on Abe’s statement came in contrast to that of China, which slammed Abe’s speech, calling it “evasive” with “its past of militarist aggression” in a statement issued by the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Beijing on Saturday.

On North Korea, Park emphasized potential benefits that could be generated from active inter-Korean cooperation but opted not to address key demands from Pyongyang that have stood in the way of thawing cold bilateral relations.

“Once we create a World Eco-Peace Park in the DMZ and reconnect severed railways and roads between the South and the North, the Baekdudaegan mountain range that penetrates the Peninsula will evolve into a new backbone for facilitating peaceful unification and realizing cooperation across Eurasia,” said Park in a highly optimistic tone.

She also urged the North to cooperate in helping families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War have a reunion.

To this end, Park said she would send a list of some 60,000 relatives in the South to the North Korean authorities and expected the North to also deliver a list in exchange within the year.

While Park struck a positive note on improved ties with the North, she criticized the reclusive country in light of the recent land mine blasts that maimed two patrol soldiers in the southern part of the demilitarized zone on Aug. 4, saying the provocation was “trampling on the aspirations of Koreans to honor the 70th anniversary of liberation.” The North denied it was behind the land mine detentions on Friday after days of silence.

“The government will respond firmly to any and all North Korean provocations that jeopardize the safety and security of our people,” Park warned.

“I call on North Korea to part with its provocative and belligerent ways and join us on the path to building a Korean Peninsula permeated by life and peace,” demanded Park.

Park, however, did not address the possibility of lifting the so-called May 24 sanctions, imposed in retaliation of the North’s attack on the Cheonan warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors, or resuming the Mount Kumgang tour program, both of which have been key demands from the North for returning to inter-Korean talks.

Park’s message to the North suggested that the government is on a two-track system in dealing with Pyongyang, under which it would sternly retaliate against future provocations while continuing efforts to bring the North back to dialogue. And the fact that Park placed more weight on renewing inter-Korean cooperation than criticizing the North for the latest provocation at the border enforced the perception that the government was looking for an improvement in ties with the North.

“The government stated its two-track position in the speech [on Saturday] that it will strongly counter future aggressions while opening doors for humanitarian aid or cooperation and exchange with the North. After the end of the joint Ulchi-Freedom Guardian [with the U.S.], there could be chances for inter-Korean talks,” said Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

On choosing not to address the lifting of the May 24 sanction, Koh said the government implied it was willing to discuss the issues demanded by the North at a negotiation table rather than accepting them for the sake of having talks with Pyongyang.

In an interview with the JoongAng Sunday, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, Prof. Kim Yong-hyun, who teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk, said the government should have proposed “holding regular reunions for separated families while offering resumption of the Mount Kumgang tour program” as an incentive to bring the North back to the table.

“Park did not make proposals that could have brought the North back to the table [in her speech],” Kim said.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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