As Japan’s prime minister failed to deliver a direct apology for the era of colonial rule, South Korea’s president urged his nation to focus on present problems, not history.
The leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed on Sunday to press ahead with joint efforts to improve bilateral ties despite skeptics at home, declaring that historical differences should not prevent the two nations from working more closely to cope with the growing security challenges from North Korea and China.
Before Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan arrived in Seoul to meet President Yoon Suk Yeol and to nurture a fledgling détente, South Koreans had been waiting intently for what Mr. Kishida might say about Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century.
Mr. Kishida said Japan stood by the past statements in which some of his predecessors expressed remorse and apologies. But he went no further than that, merely saying that “my heart ached” when he thought of the suffering of the Koreans.
His words fell short of the clear and direct apology that many South Koreans, including the head of the main opposition party, had demanded.
But Mr. Yoon said he would not dwell on seeking such an apology.
“It’s not something we can unilaterally demand; it’s something that should come naturally from the other side’s sincerity,” Mr. Yoon said during a joint news conference with Mr. Kishida. “We must abandon the notion that we cannot take a single step ahead for future cooperation until the past history is resolved.”
The present moment was too urgent, he suggested. “Both South Korea and Japan face a grave security situation in Northeast Asia, and Prime Minister Kishida and I share the view that we stand at the crossroads of a shift of historic proportions,” he said, referring to the growing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea and the deepening rivalry between the United States and China. “South Korea and Japan, which share common values, must cooperate for joint interests.”
Mr. Kishida said he was on the same page, commending the South Korean leader’s “determination and ability to act” to improve bilateral ties.
Mr. Kishida’s two-day trip follows a visit in March by Mr. Yoon to Tokyo. It means that shuttle diplomacy between two key U.S. allies is back on track after regular exchanges between the countries’ leaders ended in 2011 over historical differences. Their vows on Sunday to deepen national ties is another encouraging sign for Washington, which has been urging Tokyo and Seoul to let go of past grievances and cooperate more.
When he met Mr. Yoon in Washington late last month, President Biden thanked him for his “courageous, principled diplomacy with Japan.”
In March, Mr. Yoon removed a roadblock in relations with Japan when he announced that South Korea would no longer demand Japanese compensation for victims of forced labor during World War II, but would create its own fund for them. He also said later that Japan should no longer be expected to “kneel because of our history 100 years ago.”
The olive branch to Tokyo is part of Mr. Yoon’s broader efforts to reshape South Korean diplomacy, aligning his country closer to countries with “shared values,” especially the United States, on such things as supply chains and a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Yoon’s diplomatic concessions have been a political boon for Mr. Kishida at home but have hurt Mr. Yoon in his own country, where he was accused of “traitorous, humiliating diplomacy.” His domestic critics say he gave too much and got too little in return from Japan, which they say has never properly apologized or atoned — a common complaint among many other Asian victims, especially in China and North Korea, of Japan’s World War II aggressions.
To many South Koreans, what matters most in relations with Tokyo is how Japanese leaders view its colonial era, a time when Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names; when schools removed Korean language and history from the curriculum; and when tens of thousands of Korean women were forced into sexual slavery for Japan’s Imperial Army.
On Sunday, the political opposition accused Mr. Yoon of “speaking on Japan’s behalf,” rather than for his own people.
“Why should the abandonment of history be the condition for putting diplomacy back on track?” said Kang Sunwoo, a spokeswoman for the main opposition Democratic Party. “History is not a thing of the past. It is an ongoing matter of universal human rights.”
Although Mr. Kishida did not deliver a new apology, he and Mr. Yoon did agree on more steps toward healing historical wounds and improving ties. At Sunday’s news conference, they said that when Mr. Yoon attends the Group of 7 summit meeting this month in Hiroshima, he and Mr. Kishida will visit a monument to Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombing.
Mr. Kishida also said Japan would allow South Korean experts to inspect the tsunami-destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant to ensure that a planned release of a million tons of water from there into the sea was safe.
“Kishida, as expected, made a reference to the past that lacked clarity,” said Lee Junghwan, an expert in Korea-Japan relations at Seoul National University, after the summit meeting. “He was playing it safe, mindful of his domestic audience in Japan but also not saying anything that would provoke South Koreans.”
The last time a Japanese leader visited South Korea, the relationship was so bad that the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, remained pointedly seated during a standing ovation as North and South Korean Olympians marched together during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Mr. Kishida, traveling amid a more amicable mood, has said he wants to “add momentum” to the improving relations. But few analysts believed that decades-long tensions would disappear easily, given political pressure at home for both leaders.
“More than 90 percent of our bilateral relationship is domestic politics,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat. “So South Koreans cannot pardon us. They will continue to pressure us, and they want to maintain these sort of relations forever by moving the goal posts.”
For his part, Mr. Kishida needs the support of right-leaning politicians in Japan, who are among the most influential in selecting party leaders.
Yet Tokyo may be considering how to navigate subtle pressure from the United States, analysts said.
Mr. Biden’s praise of Mr. Yoon’s diplomacy was “a kind of message not only to President Yoon but to Kishida,” said Junya Nishino, a law professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
Mr. Yoon’s determination to improve ties with Tokyo is backed in part by shifting public opinion in South Korea. In recent surveys, China has replaced Japan as the country regarded least favorably, especially by younger people.
But South Korean misgivings about Japan have deeper roots than Mr. Yoon may like to believe, analysts say. A survey in March found that 64 percent of South Korean respondents saw no need to hurry to improve ties unless Japan changed its attitude on history.
Prof. Alexis Dudden at the University of Connecticut, an expert on Korea-Japan relations, cautioned Seoul, Tokyo and Washington against treating “history as mere background music to the present and irrelevant to how it informs immediate concerns — in this instance, standing firm on North Korea and increasingly on China, too.”
As the history of the ties between South Korea and Japan has repeatedly shown, a reconciliatory move over one historical dispute accomplishes little if another dispute, such as over the territorial rights over a set of islets between the two nations, is rekindled.
“The history issues have a way of coming back and biting you in the rear end,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer of East Asian studies at Stanford University. “These aren’t just issues of short-term public opinion. They are matters of identity in Korea.”