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(News Focus) Park shifts focus to future with Japan

All Headlines 20:00 June 22, 2015

SEOUL, June 22 (Yonhap) -- President Park Geun-hye sent a clear message Monday that her new focus in relations with Japan will be their shared future, not their bitter shared history.

She called on South Korea and Japan to "put down the heavy burden of history with the mind of reconciliation and co-prosperity," saying this year is a "historic opportunity for the two countries to move toward a future."

The shift came on the day the two countries marked the 50th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations, a symbolic year for the Northeast Asian neighbors, which coincided with a transformation of the regional political landscape.

Since taking office in February 2013, Park has refused to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe one-on-one, insisting that he first resolve the grievances of South Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

In the meantime, Abe has held summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama and strengthened relations with both countries.

With China, Japan has territorial and history disputes similar to those with South Korea.

The strengthening U.S.-Japan military alliance has been a particular cause for concern in South Korea, where distrust of the Japanese still runs deep after Tokyo's brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Despite Seoul's efforts to get Washington to pressure Abe into apologizing for Japan's wartime atrocities, a consistent message coming out of Washington has been that Seoul and Tokyo should move beyond the past and look toward the future.

The U.S., for its part, wants its two key Asian allies to get along in part to keep a rising China in check.

Against this backdrop, domestic factors also played out.

"Domestically, this is the third year of her (single) five-year term and next year will be the general elections and the beginning of her lame duck period," said Lee Won-duck, an adviser at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. "With the upcoming South Korea-U.S. summit, if they fail to catch the momentum this year, will there be a better opportunity next year or the year after? I think the government is making such calculations."

Park and Obama were scheduled to meet in Washington last week but the visit was postponed over the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in South Korea. The summit is likely to be rescheduled for this fall, between September and October, according to diplomatic sources.

Lee said the sex slavery issue will have to be resolved in one way or another.

South Korea demands that Japan acknowledge state responsibility for the war crime before all the victims die, while Japan insists it was settled under the normalization treaty of 1965. Only 50 South Korean victims of the Japanese wartime sex slavery are still alive.

"It will be difficult to just leave the issue hanging and pass by it when the level of public interest is so high," he said. "If we lower our expectations from 100 to 70, Japan will be able to jump over the hurdle."


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