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[Editorial] Japan’s empty promise

President Lee Myung-bak has again called on Japan to take sincere action to transcend the past and build a future-oriented bilateral relationship with South Korea. In a speech on Tuesday to mark the 92nd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement against Japan’s colonial rule, Lee urged Tokyo to follow through on Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s statement issued in August last year.

On Aug. 10, Kan released a special statement ahead of the centenary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula. Pledging to “squarely confront the facts of history” and “reflect upon the errors of our own,” the Japanese prime minister expressed his “feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” caused by Japan’s colonial rule.

Then he pledged efforts toward such humanitarian projects as providing assistance to ethnic Koreans left in Sakhalin and returning the remains of the people mobilized from the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, he promised to transfer precious archives from Korea that had been brought to Japan during the colonial period, such as the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty.

Since Kan’s statement, Lee has repeatedly called on the Tokyo government to translate the prime minister’s pledges into action. For instance, during his summit with Kan in Brussels on Oct. 4 last year, he stressed it was time for Tokyo to put its promises into concrete action.

In response, the Japanese government reaffirmed its intention to follow up on its pledges. On Nov. 14 last year, Japan concluded a treaty with Korea on the repatriation of the royal documents of the Joseon Dynasty. At the signing ceremony, Kan said the transfer of the 1,205 volumes of books would serve as a chance to deepen Seoul-Tokyo relations.

The agreement raised expectations in Korea that the books could be returned soon, possibly by the end of 2010. But nothing has happened since then. The reason is that the Japanese parliament has not ratified the treaty yet. The Democratic Party of Japan, Japan’s governing party that pushed the accord with Korea, has been in disarray and lost control of the Diet. As a result it could not push for the ratification of the treaty. Furthermore, embattled Prime Minister Kan has been facing pressure to quit.

But Kan and the DPJ should not leave the treaty on the back burner. They need to seek bipartisan cooperation for ratification ― the treaty is not about partisan politics but about opening a new chapter in the Seoul-Tokyo relationship.

Japanese lawmakers, regardless of their party affiliations, should take ratification seriously because it is a test of their commitment to resetting Korea-Japan ties. They need to show they can maintain trust with Korea and help the two neighbors step out of the past and move toward a bright future together.

The Korean government and politicians, for their part, also have to make efforts to have the royal books and other cultural artifacts returned. They need to put sustained pressure on Tokyo to deliver on its promises.

Regarding the repatriation of Korean cultural and artistic objects taken abroad, ruling Grand National Party Chairman Ahn Sang-soo made a fresh proposal on Tuesday. Noting that it took time and effort to bring these assets back to Korea, he proposed the establishment of a special task force in the government that would take care of the issue.

He also suggested a private foundation be launched to support the task force and participate in overseas auctions when Korean artifacts are put on sale. Ahn’s proposals deserve serious consideration. It is time for the government to make a more systematic approach to bring back Korea’s looted cultural properties.
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