By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) -- Japan's renewed apology to South Korea over its colonial rule is a modest step forward in efforts to redress the long-running bad blood between the neighbors and offers a good chance for them to move ultimately beyond the sad past, analysts said Tuesday.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan expressed "deep remorse" and his "heartfelt apology" in a statement issued Tuesday to mark the 100th anniversary later this month of Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula. Kan also offered to return centuries-old royal Korean books the country seized during the 1910-45 colonial rule.
The wording of the apology was largely similar to statements Japan has made since 1995 when former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued what was considered the clearest apology up until then, except that Tuesday's included a phrase saying Japan annexed Korea "against the will of the Korean people."
Still, analysts said the latest apology is meaningful because Japan tried to show its remorse through action for the first time by agreeing to Seoul's long-running demand for the return of the royal documents of Korea's Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) that Japan took away in 1922.
"It is the first time that Japan showed its apology through action," said Chin Chang-soo, a senior analyst on Korea-Japan affairs at the Sejong Institute, a think tank located south of Seoul. "I think Japan tried to reflect the demand of our people with some sincerity."
Chin said that Tuesday's apology is also meaningful because it is specifically for South Korea, which is different from the 1995 Murayama statement that was addressed to "Asian nations," and also because the latest statement acknowledged the annexation was against the will of the Korean people.
Yun Deok-min, a senior researcher at Seoul's state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, also said the most important part of Tuesday's statement was Japan's acknowledgement for the first time of the coercive nature of the colonial rule.
Japan's offer to return the royal Korean texts also represents progress that overturns Tokyo's previous position that all issues regarding the colonial rule were settled in a 1965 package compensation deal between the two countries, Yun said. Under that agreement, Seoul received hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and low-interest loans from Tokyo.
Japan's harsh colonial rule left deep scars on the hearts of Koreans. During that period Koreans were banned from using their own language at schools and forced to adopt Japanese names. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were also mobilized as forced laborers and sex slaves.
South Korea and Japan are key trade partners and cooperate closely in efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. But issues related to the colonial rule have often badly strained their relations, with tensions flaring up whenever Japan attempted to gloss over its wartime past or lay claims to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo in school textbooks or government documents.
Often fueling such tensions were former Japanese leaders, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who had regularly visited a Tokyo war shrine seen as a symbol of Japan's militarism. Neighboring South Korea and China strongly protested, taking such visits to the Yasukuni Shrine as effectively meaning that Japan has not fully repented for its past.
One of the most frequently used phrases in South Korean media on relations with Japan is that the country is a neighbor that is "close by" geographically and "far off" emotionally, meaning that Japan does not fully understand the feelings of Korean people over the colonial rule.
South Korea positively assessed Japan's latest apology, saying it takes the move as Tokyo's intention to overcome their "unfortunate" past and expressing hopes for better ties with the neighboring nation based on a correct understanding of history.
"We expect all Japanese people to share this view," foreign ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said in a statement. "We recognize Prime Minister Kan's statement as his and the Japanese government's willingness to overcome the unfortunate past between Korea and Japan and to develop bright bilateral relations in the future."
Kim also welcomed Japan's decision to return the royal Korean texts.
"Our government also hopes that the close relations between South Korea and Japan will further develop into a future-oriented partnership based on a correct understanding of the past unfortunate history and repentance," he said.
Chin, the analyst, said Tuesday's statement could serve as a starting point for the two countries to move beyond the tragic past if South Korea responds positively to the Japanese overtures. A positive reaction from Seoul would also give Japan's ruling Democratic Party a boost to push for more measures, he said.
"Of course, it would have been better if Japan had addressed all other issues, such as supporting comfort women and making individual compensation" to victims of forced labor or sexual slavery, Chin said. "But I think we need to assess this positively to make it the starting point of resolving pending issues in a mutually reinforcing way."
The expert also said that the timing of the statement was good as it came ahead of South Korea's Aug. 15 Liberation Day marking the end of the colonial rule in 1945 following Japan's defeat in World War II.
"President Lee Myung-bak can make a positive assessment of this in his Liberation Day speech," he said. "That would give Japan's Democratic Party some power to overcome domestic opposition and take greater steps in the future."
Other experts, however, voiced disappointment, saying Japan failed to accept the illegality of the annexation treaty.
"The kernel of the Korea-Japan issue ... is to make the forcefully adopted annexation treaty illegal and null and void," said Kim Young-ho, president of Yuhan University. "It is nothing but an attempt to get around the central point to say sorry while claiming the annexation treaty itself is lawful and effective."
Kim, along with Haruki Wada, emeritus professor of the University of Tokyo, led about 1,000 scholars from South Korea and Japan to issue a statement last month demanding Tokyo's admission that the annexation treaty was void.
Lee Tae-jin, professor emeritus of Seoul National University, also rejected Tuesday's apology as just a repetition of the 1995 Murayama statement, saying Seoul should remember that the former Japanese prime minister who issued the landmark statement ultimately told the parliament later that the Korea-Japan annexation was "lawful," he said.
"What is important from now is for Japan to show (its sincerity) through action," a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity while assessing Tokyo's statement as "a step forward."
"We also hope to maintain, strengthen and develop friendly and cooperative relations with Japan. Japan should show action on various issues" including refraining from laying claims to the South Korean islets of Dokdo, he said.
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