Abe dubs Korea an ‘important neighbor’

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Abe dubs Korea an ‘important neighbor’

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the discord with Korea on Friday at the commencement of an extraordinary session of parliament, saying it should honor bilateral agreements.

“Korea is an important neighboring country,” Abe said in the only reference to Korea in his speech. “I would like to ask [Korea] to keep to the agreements made based on international law.”

Abe made a similar statement in August, referring to the Korean Supreme Court’s decision last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor during World War II - which Tokyo says violates a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations between the two countries.

Abe has also been upset by Korean President Moon Jae-in’s repudiation of a 2015 bilateral agreement on the victims of forced sexual slavery during World War II, also known as “comfort women.”

“When we think about the current Japan-South Korea relationship, the biggest issue we have is of trust, or whether promises made between states are kept,” Abe said at a press conference in Hiroshima on Aug. 6.

Japan annexed Korea from 1910 to 1945, during which at least 148,961 people were forced into labor in Japan, according to Korea’s prime minister’s office. The office projected that around 5,000 of the victims were still alive as of last year.

Tokyo maintains that a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations with Seoul settled all compensation matters.

Since the Supreme Court’s decisions last year, Japan levied trade restrictions on Korea in August and removed Korea from a list of favored trading partners the same month - seen in Korea as retaliatory measures for the court’s rulings.

As bilateral relations froze over, Abe has mentioned Korea less and less in his speeches to the parliament.

It was customary for Abe to mention Korea in addresses to the parliament upon the commencements of sessions.

But Abe omitted Korea altogether in a parliamentary address on Jan. 28, except when he mentioned that Japan will cooperate with the United States and South Korea to work on issues related to North Korea.

Some analysts say that Abe’s use of the term “an important neighboring country” to describe Korea may not necessarily be an olive branch.

Abe, who has been in office since 2012, frequently described Korea as an important neighboring country in his addresses. He stopped using the term in 2017 but reused it again for the first time in two years in a speech last January.

A source in Japan familiar with matters told the JoongAng Ilbo, “The terminology was included not out of consideration of Korea but in order to emphasize that Korea should uphold previous agreements.”

In Abe’s Friday address, there were other changes that some analysts said were signals of Japan’s discontentment with Korea, especially following South Korea’s announcement in August of its plan to terminate a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

Abe omitted South Korea in his mention of international cooperation on North Korean issues, stating that Japan will cooperate “closely with the United States and the international community.”

When Abe described the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, he left out Korea, a member of the partnership, while mentioning Asean, China, India and Australia.

“We will bring about free and open Indo-Pacific cooperation, with the Japan-U.S. alliance as the foundation of the cooperation while working with the U.K., France, Australia, India and other nations that share the same value systems.”

Abe also appeared comparatively cordial toward China in his address.

BY SEO SEUNG-WOOK. AND ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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