South Korea President Lee Myung-bak waded deeper into a spat with Japan over colonial-era wrongdoings, using his Independence Day speech on Wednesday to urge Tokyo to resolve the anger that lingers over the sexual enslavement of Korean women by Japanese soldiers in World War II.
“It was a breach of women’s rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice,” Lee said, according to a translated version of the speech. “We urge the Japanese government to take responsible measures in this regard.”
Japanese officials have long noted that they provided financial support to women in Korea and other Asian countries who were treated as sex slaves during the war. Japanese prime ministers and other officials have also made apologies over the years. On Tuesday, hundreds of Japanese women participated in public apology ceremonies in 13 South Korean cities.
Lee’s remarks about Japan amounted to just three paragraphs in an eight-page speech considered one of the most important of the year for South Korean presidents. Both South and North Korea mark the end of World War II on August 15, 1945, because it also ended Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.
But his speech took on heightened importance after Lee last week publicly confronted one of the other controversies tied to Japan’s colonisation of Korea – its claim over a set of islets called the Liancourt Rocks that was part of Korea for centuries and that South Korea has policed since 1954.
Lee visited the rocks, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, last Friday, becoming the first South Korean president to do so. Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea to protest his visit. Lee didn’t mention the visit nor Japan’s reaction in his speech.
“Japan is a close neighbour, a friend that shares basic values and an important partner that we should work with to open the future,” Lee said in the speech.
“However, we have to point out that the chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in the Northeast Asia region, as well as bilateral ties,” he said.
In late June, South Korea backed out at the last minute from signing a pact for sharing and protecting military secrets with Japan after criticism from politicians and local media focused on the inability of the two countries to resolve the colonial-era issues.
An aide to Lee said that he decided to focus on the wartime sexual slavery issue because it is the easiest for the two countries to resolve. The official told reporters before the speech that the matter has been discussed “at the highest levels” and said “Japan knows what to do,” though he stopped short of providing specifics except to say, “This is not a matter of compensation.”
The aide said Lee and other South Korean officials don’t want to connect future policy making and diplomacy with Japan – including the countries’ current pursuit of a free-trade agreement – to the correcting of historical issues. “We attach great importance to these policies…but we need domestic support,” the official said.
The aide noted similar tensions exist between South Korea and China, citing a recent case in which South Korean human-rights activists returned from four months in Chinese prisons, with allegations of beatings and torture. After several diplomatic exchanges, Beijing hasn’t officially acknowledged the accusations. “One by one, we have to eliminate these frictions,” Lee’s aide said.
Lee spent much of the speech – his last because his five-year term ends in February and South Korean presidents may not run for re-election – discussing the accomplishments of his presidency and the challenges facing South Korea.
He briefly noted changes appear to be under way in North Korea under its new leader, though he didn’t mention Kim Jong Eun by name. “Superficially, the situation may look different,” Lee said, in a nod to Kim’s image-making, including the recent revelation of his wife.
Lee added that South Korea and other countries continue to look for more substance, including North Korean adherence to agreements to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“Pyongyang has come to a situation where it has to look straight at reality and consider a transformation,” Lee said. “We will watch carefully for the possible changes.”