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Japan colonial presence felt 100 years on

Can Seoul and Tokyo finally put aside differences in the face of unpredictable North Korea?

The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, welcomed the statement as “one step forward,” but stopped well short of suggesting that the damage had been repaired. “There remain issues that have to be resolved,” he said.

Ordinary South Koreans were more blunt. "August the 29th is a day of humiliation when the Imperial Japan seized our national sovereignty 100 years ago and started suppressing our people as if we were slaves," Kim Young-il, head of the Korean Liberation Association, which represents former independence fighters, told a rally in Seoul on Sunday.

The countries have also failed to resolve several long-running disputes.

Japan refuses to pay compensation to former sex slaves — the so-called comfort women — insisting that all compensation claims had been dealt with by postwar treaties. They disagree, too, over the name of the ocean that separates them: Tokyo refers to it as the Sea of Japan, while in South Korea it is called the East Sea.

Potentially most damaging of all are their competing claims to a group of islands in the Japan Sea/East Sea known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. Aside from the islands’ symbolic value, they are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and, possibly, oil and gas deposits.

In a sign of what some regard as greater diplomatic maturity, Japan postponed publication of its latest defense white paper, which describes Takeshima as inherently Japanese, until after the centenary.

But Takeshi Akamatsu, a foreign ministry spokesman, said Tokyo would never relinquish its claims. “In light of the historical facts and international law it is clear that Takeshima is an inherent part of Japan,” he said. “There is no change in our position, but we don’t want the territorial issue to harm our relations with South Korea.”

Akamatsu noted that Seoul has refused a Japanese offer to settle the matter at the international court of justice in The Hague.

Shin Yeon-sung, secretary-general of the Northeast Asian History Foundation, insists that Dokdo belongs to South Korea, whose coastguard now occupies the islands.

“We won’t go to The Hague because this is not a legal issue,” Shin said. “Dokdo is Korean, so there is no need for a dispute with Japan. But we also want to avoid this becoming a thorn in the side of bilateral ties. A hundred years after Japan’s colonization of Korea, it is time to look forward.”

Both countries seem eager, for now, to put bilateral disputes to one side while they focus on more urgent threats to stability posed by North Korea. But it can only be a matter of time before history rouses itself to test their friendship yet again.