Conflicts linger despite cooperation on World Heritage bid

Conflicts linger despite cooperation on World Heritage bid
South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech during a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of Japan-South Korea bilateral relations
PHOTO: Reuters

During foreign ministerial talks on Sunday, Japan and South Korea resolved one of their numerous points of contention by agreeing to mutually cooperate over Japan's bid to gain World Cultural Heritage status for its Meiji-era (1868-1912) industrial revolution sites.

"If the registration fails because of opposition from South Korea, Japan's public opinion of South Korea would deteriorate irreparably despite this memorial year," Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama had told South Korea, during his visit to Seoul before the talks.

Sugiyama was dispatched to the country on Friday and Saturday to meet with First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yong and other officials where he urged them to reconsider South Korea's opposition.

South Korea was opposed to the bid because "there was forced labour at some of the sites during wartime," but the last-minute effort prompted the country to rethink its position.

Japan is also moving to clarify, in some form, the fact that Koreans had worked at some of the sites.

Both countries managed to evade the worst-case scenario of tussling over votes at the World Heritage Committee.

Given that the leaders from the two nations have not held talks for around three years, why did they work out a compromise?

The outcome points to due consideration being given to the United States, which has cited concerns over deteriorating ties between Japan and South Korea.

On April 28, Japan and the United States held a summit meeting at the White House.

"The Japan-South Korea relationship is important," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

"We're currently discussing various issues." US President Barack Obama responded that he welcomes such efforts.

Prompted by the Washington meeting, Abe directed Shotaro Yachi, chief of the Japanese National Security Council's secretariat, to negotiate with presidential chief of staff Lee Byung Kee - a close aide to South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The two countries have been communicating behind the scenes and on one occasion senior NSC officials visited Seoul.

Witnessing the strengthening of ties between Japan and the United States, South Korea apparently fears it will be left behind.

In May, Park was directly asked by visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry to improve relations with Japan.

The two countries making concessions over Unesco bids is essentially a calculated move targeting relations with the United States, but conflicts still remain regarding the so-called comfort women issue.

During recent ministerial talks, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida maintained Japan's stance that the comfort women issue has been "legally and completely settled."

As for summit talks between Abe and Park that have yet to be realized, foreign ministers only went so far as to confirm that both countries would strive to arrange a meeting at "an appropriate time."

There still seems to be no way out from a "cycle of negativity" in which the two countries continue to misunderstand each other over historical perceptions and other problems.

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