China, South Korea Not Convinced by Abe’s WW2 Anniversary Speech

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China, South Korea Not Convinced by Abe’s WW2 Anniversary Speech

China was blunt about its disappointment, while South Korea held out hope for better relations.

China, South Korea Not Convinced by Abe’s WW2 Anniversary Speech
Credit: Screenshot of Abe’s address to U.S. Congress

On August 14, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered his long-awaited statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The reception to the speech was mixed – some noted that Abe included all the key phrases from past statements, including admissions of Japan’s “aggression” and “colonial rule” and emphasized the lessons learned from history. Others criticized Abe for not actually offering an apology, leaving historical issues to rankle for the foreseeable future.

But the most important reactions come not from pundits, but from other governments, particularly those of Japan’s neighbors. China and South Korea expressed intense interest in (and concern about) the contents of Abe’s statement in the lead-up to the speech. How did their governments respond to the final version?

A statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying made it clear that Beijing was not satisfied with Abe’s speech:

Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle.

Hua added that “the question of history has a direct bearing on the political basis of China-Japan relations.” She urged Japan to “face squarely the history of aggression and do serious soul-searching about it.”

Indeed, Chinese state media lost no time in taking Abe’s to task for his “watered-down apology.” A Xinhua commentary, published only a few hours after the speech was made, called Abe’s statement “a retrogression” from a previous apology offered by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. The commentary warned that Abe’s remarks wouldn’t mend regional tensions over the issue of history, calling the speech “a crippled start to build trust among [Japan’s] neighbors.”

Likewise, the response in South Korean media was mostly negative, as Steven Denney noted for The Diplomat. But the official response from South Korea’s government was more measured — a testament, perhaps, to Seoul’s recognition that the United States wants its two key Asian allies to mend ties.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, in her address on August 15 (South Korea’s liberation day), expressed dissatisfaction with Abe’s speech. “[I]t is hard to deny that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s statement of yesterday marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, did not quite live up to our expectations,” Park said.

However, she also noted Abe’s promise that previous Japanese cabinet apologies “will remain unshakeable into the future.” She also held out hope for progress on Korea-Japan ties, saying that “close friendship and cooperation between Korea and Japan are essential to the peace and prosperity of both countries and the rest of East Asia.”

In essence, Park called for actions rather than words, urging the Japanese government “to match with consistent and sincere actions its declaration that the view of history articulated by its previous cabinets will be upheld, and thereby win the trust of its neighbors and the international community.” From Seoul’s standpoint, that particularly means “a speedy and proper” resolution to the “comfort women” issue.

A statement from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise called for deeds over words:

[T]he Government of the Republic of Korea takes note of Prime Minister Abe’s remarks in his statement that the historical views “articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future,” and will pay attention to what concrete actions the Japanese government will take to fulfill them.

Seoul also pledged to continue its dual-track approach to relations with Japan, where historical issues are not sidelined but also do not prevent cooperation in other areas. The ministry promised to “to step up mutually beneficial cooperation with Japan in such areas as the North Korean nuclear issue, economy, social affairs and culture, as well as cooperation for peace and stability in Northeast Asia.”

After these calls for “concrete action” to demonstrate the sincerity of past apologies, however, Seoul was quickly disappointed. Both China and South Korea’s foreign ministries noted that after Abe’s speech, he sent a ritual offering to Yasukuni Shrine, and several of his Cabinet members paid visits to the shrine. Yasukuni has become a symbol of the historical divide between Japan on one hand and China and South Korea on the other. Japanese politicians who visit the shrine consistently argue that they do so not to glorify war but to remember it — and honor Japan’s commitment to peace. But Beijing and Seoul believe the shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead (including Class-A war criminals from World War II), is a sign of historical revisionism.

In the words of China’s Foreign Ministry, “The Yasukuni Shrine is a spiritual tool and symbol of the wars of aggression launched by the Japanese militarism.” Spokesperson Hua said that visits and offerings to the shrine from Japanese politicians “once again” demonstrated “Japan’s wrong attitude towards the history issue.”

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry issued its own statement saying that Yasukuni Shrine “glorifies Japan’s forcible colonization and war of aggression.” The statement suggests that offerings and visits to the shrine a day after Abe’s statement undercut its promise to uphold previous apologies.