S Korea president says Abe speech left 'much to be desired'

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

SEOUL - South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said Saturday that a speech by Japan's prime minister expressing deep remorse for his country's actions in World War II had fallen short of Seoul's expectations.

"It is true that the prime minister's statement made (on Friday) left much to be desired," Park said in a speech marking the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II that ended its 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean Peninsula.

While noting Shinzo Abe's vow that previous national apologies for Japan's aggression would stand, Park said Tokyo must follow-up such words with "sincere actions" that could earn the trust of its Asian neighbours.

Even as she was speaking, a pair of Japanese cabinet ministers visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine, which neighbouring countries see as an ugly symbol of Tokyo's militarist past.

Abe sent a ritual offering to the shrine which is dedicated to millions of Japanese who died in conflicts - including more than a dozen war criminals.

In her speech, Park particularly stressed the need for the Japanese government to resolve, "at the earliest possible date", the issue of Asian women forced to work as sex slaves for the military in Japanese wartime brothels.

The so-called "comfort women" issue is an extremely emotive one in South Korea, where less than 50 of the thousands of women coerced into prostitution remain alive.

"History can never be covered up. History remains alive through its witnesses' vivid testimony," Park said.

Abe had alluded to the subject in his speech, speaking of women behind the battlefields "whose honour and dignity were severely injured." South Korea insists Japan has yet to fully atone for the suffering the comfort women went through and should offer further reparations.

The rift has prevented any summit meeting between Park and Abe - an impasse that has frustrated the United States which would prefer its two key Asian military allies to focus together on containing an increasingly assertive China.

But Park did offer some hope of a thaw, saying that, despite all the difficulties, it was time the two countries "moved forward to a new future." South Korean media reaction to Abe's speech was largely negative, with the largest-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper accusing the Japanese premier of wrapping his message of regret over past aggressions inside a shell of justification.

"This is unacceptable as a sincere apology and repentance for the Korean people who suffered from colonial rule," it said in an editorial.