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Understanding the latest efforts to normalize relations between Japan and South Korea


Tensions over a wide range of issues, from forced labor to the systematic rape of girls and women, have served as a serious wedge between Japan and South Korea. But increasing concerns over China's aggressive regional expansion and North Korea's threats could push the two countries with a long history of acrimony closer together. South Korea's president, Yoon Suk Yeol, will be visiting Japan this week. It'll be the first such visit in 12 years.

We're joined by Sue Mi Terry. She directs the Asia Program and the Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

SUE MI TERRY: Thank you for having me on.

RASCOE: President Yoon's visit is intended to accomplish a number of things like including compensating Koreans who were drafted into forced labor when Korea was occupied by Japan starting in 1910. Can you tell us a bit about that history for people who may not be familiar?

TERRY: Sure. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, so there was a huge number of Japanese living in Korea. It was very intense, brutal colonization. And during that period, Japanese forces conscripted nearly 750,000 Korean men as forced laborers and 200,000 women as comfort women. As you said, that's a euphemism for sex slaves used by Imperial Japan from occupied countries - not only from Korea, but other countries too, like China, the Philippines and the Dutch Indies.

From the Korean perspective, they want a sincere apology. They want compensation. And from the Japanese perspective, they said, hey, you know, there is this 1965 normalization agreement between South Korea and Japan, which have settled all postwar claims of compensation. And they also maintain that they have acknowledged and apologized numerous times for various crimes and that, you know, there's, frankly, apology fatigue from the public.

RASCOE: Why is South Korea now saying it will compensate victims of forced labor instead of calling on Japan to do so?

TERRY: Well, they have called on Japan to do so many, many times. And this is what the Koreans really want. But frankly, the Japanese are just not going to do that. So President Yoon is now being very realistic. And when you consider the age of labor victims, they're in their 90s, and among the 15 plaintiffs who won damage against the Japanese firms in 2018, only three are currently alive. So from Korean perspective, if they want to improve relationship at all with the Japanese, this is sort of the only solution that the Yoon administration came up with.

RASCOE: But this plan is contentious, right? Because there are some South Koreans who are saying, why is South Korea paying instead of Japan, right?

TERRY: Oh, absolutely. This is very contentious issue. The public does not like it. And there's a very strong anti-Japan sentiment. This is a courageous decision. President Yoon sought a solution, and he feels that this is the only solution for Korea and Japan to improve their relationship.

RASCOE: Both countries face nuclear threats from North Korea and increasingly confrontational China. But why is the South Korean government so intent on improving relations with Japan right now?

TERRY: Well, they're the two most important allies for the United States, right? They are two mature democracies. They should be working together. As you mentioned, they face North Korean threat. Last year, North Korea tested some 100 missiles. They're on the verge of conducting a seventh nuclear test. There's also the China factor. The regional environment is ripe for the countries to improve relationship.

You know, in Korea-Japan relationship, it has not always been bad. Like, there were times in the past when things were better. So, for example, in late 1990s, the Korea-Japan relationship was in a better state. They co-hosted World Cup together in 2002. So again, right now, when you look at the political environment, just the threats they're facing, it's the right thing to do.

And from the U.S. perspective, of course we welcome this announcement because nothing's been more frustrating for the U.S. government than these two important allies of the United States not working together.

RASCOE: Do you think that these proposed reparations could be a new phase in Japan-South Korea relations?

TERRY: I do. There's - already they are taking steps to improve the relationship - Japan lifting export controls. They are normalizing intelligence sharing. Then they will be meeting face-to-face. The only real challenge here is the Korean public. President Yoon has to get the buy-in from the Korean public. At least President Yoon has four more years. So I do hope that Korea-Japan relationship will improve.

RASCOE: That's the Wilson Center's Sue Mi Terry. Thank you so much for joining us.

TERRY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.