Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Speech Fails to Satisfy South Koreans

luvsmiling, Aug. 14, 2015, 9:01 a.m.

Seven decades after Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, prospects for early reconciliation between the East Asian neighbors appeared dim Friday as the Japanese premier stopped short of a direct apology for his country's wartime deeds.Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had come under growing pressure from South Korea and China to come clean on Japan's war history in his own wording to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which falls on Saturday.

Two days ahead of his speech, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said the statement would be a "touchstone" for the future of their countries' ties and expressed hope Abe would repeat key words in the apologies of his predecessors, such as the landmark 1995 statement of then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. In his statement marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Murayama expressed "feelings of deep remorse" and offered his "heartfelt apology" for the "tremendous damage and suffering" done to the people of many nations, especially those in Asia.

Abe reaffirmed that he would uphold the Murayama Statement but did not offer a direct and clear apology. "Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future," he said in a press conference in Tokyo shortly after the statement was passed by his Cabinet. Earlier, he said he will uphold the statement "in its entirety," leading critics to question his true intention.

Many Koreans still have doubts about Abe's history view amid his controversial push for expanding the role of Japan's troops abroad. His sincerity has been brought again into question by his refusal to issue a fresh apology of his own. "Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war," he said. Abe's resistance was underscored further when he said, "We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize."

Abe's stance is in contrast with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's position on her country's own wartime past. In January, marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Merkel said Germans had "an everlasting responsibility" to preserve the memories of Nazi crimes. "We must not forget," she said at the time. "We owe that to the many millions of victims." Then in May, commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II's end, Merkel insisted Germany can't just ignore its Nazi past and said, "One can't draw the line in history."

In what is seen as a goodwill gesture, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called Yun shortly after the statement was announced to explain the background for the wording and highlight Abe's determination to uphold the position of previous cabinets. Yun told Kishida the South Korean government needs time to review Abe's wording. Above all, he stressed, "sincere action" is of importance on the part of the Japanese government. The reaction of the South Korean public was more forthright as many expressed disappointment in Abe's refusal to atone for his country's wartime brutality, especially its sexual enslavement of Korean and other Asian women for its World War II soldiers.

"We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honor of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century," Abe said, a far cry from South Korea's demands that Japan acknowledge state responsibility for the crime and offer proper compensation to the 47 surviving South Korean victims. Yang Sun-im, president of the Association for the Pacific War Victims, said Abe might as well not have issued a statement at all.

"When he says the future generations won't have to apologize, he's essentially saying they can start another war," Yang said. Adding that Abe has been pushing to make it legal to exercise Japan's right to collective self-defense, Yang said, "Abe is turning his people into warmongers."  Ahn Shin-kwon, director of the House of Sharing, a home for former sex slaves just south of Seoul, said Abe failed to make the same acknowledgment of Japan's sexual slavery that former Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono made in his 1993 statement.

"With such a vague expression as 'honor and dignity were severely injured,' (Abe) deceived us and the international community," Ahn added. Abe's reluctance was clearly shown in his carefully chosen words, according to experts. "It appears that there was deep contemplation because he did not initially wish to inherit (the past statements)," said Lee Won-deog, head of the Japanese studies center at Seoul's Kookmin University. "He wanted to shake free from the basic position of the Murayama statement, but couldn't go that far. So he made a vague compromise."

Chin Chang-soo, head of Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based private think tank, laid out what Abe did wrong from South Korea's point of view. "He didn't speak clearly about the pillage of the colonial era, and at the same time, referred to Japan's post-war efforts in the third person," he said.

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