News / Asia

Japan, South Korea Move to Ease Tensions

South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-hye, right, talks with Fukushiro Nukaga, the special envoy of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting at Park's office in Seoul, January 4, 2013.
South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-hye, right, talks with Fukushiro Nukaga, the special envoy of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during their meeting at Park's office in Seoul, January 4, 2013.
South Korea's president-elect on Friday met with a special envoy sent by Japan's prime minister. The meeting is seen as an initial move by the incoming leaders in both countries to try to ease the strained bilateral relationship.

There was little expectation the visit by Japanese special envoy Fukushiro Nukaga would lead to any immediate breakthrough. But the timing itself of the meeting with South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye is considered significant.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office on December 26th while Ms. Park's inauguration is set for February 25.

The Japanese diplomat, who is a former finance minister, presented Ms. Park with a letter from Mr. Abe.

Park called Nukaga's visit timely, considering the transition of leadership since last month in both Tokyo and in Seoul.

The president elect says she hopes the two countries "can make a mutual effort to build trust based on the people's sentiment" and strengthen two-way relations in various fields.

A group of South Korean lawmakers is to head to Tokyo next week.

It is expected the interactions between politicians of the two countries will lead to a summit meeting sometime this year between President Park and Prime Minister Abe.

Relations between the two Asian neighbors deteriorated last year. The current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, angered Japanese with an unprecedented visit to Dokdo. The small virtually unoccupied island, known as Takeshima in Japanese, has been held by South Korea since the mid-1950's but is also claimed by Japan.

South Koreans are upset by what they view as a lack of remorse by Japanese and their government over the country's early 20th century occupation of the Korean peninsula.

An especially sensitive issue concerns the so-called "comfort women" -- Koreans who were forced into prostitution for Japanese troops during World War Two.

The Japanese envoy, arriving at Gimpo International Airport on Friday, was met by a noisy group of anti-Japanese activists.

One of them - identified as 57-year-old Lim Chang-geun - armed with a small knife, stabbed himself in the stomach.

Another activist, Oh Cheon-do, termed Nukaga's visit to South Korea meaningless and premature.

Oh says Japan should only send special envoys here after it sufficiently apologizes to Korea and international society for its past misdeeds.

Japan and South Korea agreed in 1965 to ends claims of compensation for the colonial era.

Seoul has criticized a private fund, established in 1995, for those forced into wartime prostitution, saying the money is insufficient and compensation should come from the Japanese government.

Many Koreans also consider inadequate a 1993 apology from a Japanese government spokesman.

Japan Friday lodged a protest with South Korea over Seoul's decision to send home a Chinese man wanted by Japanese authorities for an attack on a controversial Shinto shrine.

Liu Qiang, who is 38, flew out of Incheon on a flight bound for Shanghai Friday morning, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

Japan had asked South Korea to extradite Liu to face trial for arson.  Authorities here say Liu admitted setting fire in December, 2011 to the gates of Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe told reporters at a news conference Friday that South Korea had "effectively ignored" a bilateral extradition treaty, and called the action "extremely regrettable."

Liu was released by South Korea after serving a 10-month sentence here for hurling firebombs at the Japanese Embassy.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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