The Foreign Ministry’s 2016 Diplomatic Bluebook released Friday calls South Korea the nation’s most important neighboring country that shares strategic interests, an upgrade in phrasing from last year clearly based on December’s historic agreement on the “comfort women” issue.
The 2015 bluebook only said: “Japan and the Republic of Korea are the most important neighboring countries to each other.”
The 2015 version said “the two countries face difficult issues,” but that passage was removed from this year’s version.
The new phrasing reflects Tokyo’s thinking that bilateral relations have significantly improved since Tokyo and Seoul signed a pact to resolve the long-standing issue of the comfort women, Japan’s euphemism for the females and women who were forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japanese troops before and during the war.
If the agreement is accepted by the survivors, it will clear an emotional and political stumbling block to improving bilateral relations.
Also in the bluebook is an announcement made by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and hia South Korean counterpart, Yun Byun-se, that the two nations reached an agreement.
A Foreign Ministry official said the announcement was included to highlight the apology of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who expressed “his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” The apology was part of the agreement.
Yet ties remain strained by other issues.
In the report, Tokyo maintains that the South Korean-held islet called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea is Japanese territory.
It also said the issue of forced wartime Korean labor by private Japanese companies has already been resolved and calls on Seoul to scrap an import ban on seafood related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“There is no change in Tokyo’s position that we will cope with these ‘difficult issues,’ ” Kishida said Friday, referring to the bluebook.
South Korea on Friday criticized Japan for reiterating its sovereignty claim over the islets and urged Tokyo to immediately retract it.
“It’s deeply deplorable for Japan to have repeated an unjust territorial claim over Dokdo, which is an integral part of our territory historically, in terms of international law, geographically,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Still, the document devotes more space to explaining the maritime security situation in the East and South China Seas, where China is asserting itself militarily.
Last year’s bluebook also contained several mentions of the situation in the two regions, but this year’s version added photos.
On Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the East China Sea, where the uninhabited, Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands – also claimed by China – are situated, the bluebook said Tokyo is preparing to deal with the situation calmly and will make demands where necessary, depending on the situation.
In regard to the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands with radar installations and surface-to-air missile batteries, the bluebook cited the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
Manila filed a claim with the arbitration court in The Hague last October based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The court is expected to rule in the coming months.
The arbitration court was also mentioned in the statement on maritime security adopted at the Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting that concluded in Hiroshima on Monday. Beijing on Tuesday warned the G-7 not to play up maritime disputes.
However, the landslide defeat of the ruling party in South Korea’s general election on Wednesday is not only a blow to the leadership of President Park Geun-hye, it may also derail progress on settling the “comfort women” issue, experts said Thursday.
Moreover, they said, it throws a spanner in the works as Tokyo and Seoul step up cooperation over North Korea.
The conservative Saenuri Party became the first ruling party to lose a majority in the 300-seat National Assembly in 16 years. The divided assembly will leave Park’s government a lame-duck administration, despite mounting international problems that South Korea’s first female President needs to embrace before her term ends in early 2018.
“Park will definitely lose power and clout,” said Hideki Okuzono, an associate professor at the University of Shizuoka. “Overall, it will have a negative impact on Japan-South Korea relations.”
Still, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday said Tokyo believes both the ruling and the opposition camps understand the importance of bilateral relations and Tokyo hopes for progress “at all levels,” including on comfort women.
“It is important for both Tokyo and Seoul to implement the agreement reached at the end of last year,” Suga told a news conference.
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