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(LEAD) Survey shows signs of improving S. Korea-Japan relations

All News 18:11 July 20, 2016

(ATTN: CORRECTS the percentage point gap in 3rd para)

SEOUL, July 20 (Yonhap) -- Fewer South Koreans have a negative impression of Japan this year compared with last year, while the number of Japanese who think badly about South Korea also declined, a recent survey by private think tanks showed Wednesday, suggesting bilateral relations are improving after going through a rough patch in recent years caused by shared historical issues.

The survey, commissioned by the South Korean think tank East Asia Institute and Japan-based Genron NPO, was conducted from June through July on 1,010 South Koreans and 1,000 Japanese adults. It was the two groups' fourth annual joint poll.

The result showed 61 percent of Koreans have either a "not favorable" or "generally not favorable" impression of Japan, 11.5 percentage points down from figures posted in the same survey conducted a year earlier.

Toward South Korea, 44.6 percent of Japanese said they have not favorable feelings, also down from 52.4 percent recorded a year earlier, according to the survey.

"The figures mean momentum is building up for a change in bilateral relations, although there still remains high levels of negative perception," the think tanks said. "The previously ever-worsening mutual perception was put to a halt."

The Seoul-Tokyo relations hit their lowest ebb in recent years as the neighbors' disputes over diplomatic issues stemming from Japan's colonial rule of Korea (1910-45) intensified. Seoul and Tokyo have clashed on such matters as Korean women enslaved by Japanese troops to serve as sex slaves, and Japan's claim to Dokdo, a set of islets in the East Sea that belongs to South Korea.

The chilly relations had kept the countries' heads of state from holding a summit meeting for nearly three years until President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held their first talks in November 2015.

The latest bilateral survey, meanwhile, showed 21.3 percent of Koreans had "positive" or "generally positive" views toward Japan, up from last year's 15.7 percent.

About 29 percent of Japanese said they have a positive impression toward South Koreans, also up from 23.8 percent last year.

The warming mood was reflected on the Japanese assessment of the current status of bilateral relations, with 50.9 percent of the Japanese respondents saying the relations are "bad." The corresponding figure for last year was 65.4 percent.

Among South Koreans, 62.3 percent said Seoul-Tokyo ties are bad, compared to 78.2 percent a year earlier, according to the latest findings.

But the neighbors' citizens were still polarized over the result of the countries' settlement of the sexually enslaved women issue, reached last December.

Forty-eight percent of Japanese accept the deal positively, but 38 percent of South Koreans are against it, a number surpassing those who think of the deal in a positive light which stands at 28 percent.

The countries settled the decades-old feud with the deal in which Japan made a written apology and committed 1 billion yen (US$9.6 million) in financial support for the victims.

Still, South Koreans view Japan as the second-biggest source of military threats to their countries after North Korea, the survey showed. For Japan, the country that poses the biggest security threat is North Korea, followed by China and Russia. South Korea was in fifth place.

pbr@yna.co.kr
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