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Japan claims Dokdo, soft-pedals forced labor in textbooks

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Lim Soo-suk, spokesperson for the Korean Foreign Ministry, holds a press briefing regarding Japan’s approval of history textbooks that claim the Dokdo islets as its own, in Seoul on Tuesday. [YONHAP]
Lim Soo-suk, spokesperson for the Korean Foreign Ministry, holds a press briefing regarding Japan’s approval of history textbooks that claim the Dokdo islets as its own, in Seoul on Tuesday. [YONHAP]

Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed regrets to Japan on Tuesday after Tokyo approved history textbooks that claim the Dokdo islets as its own and contain diluted descriptions of forced labor.

The Japanese move has returned two red flag issues to the agenda of Korea-Japan relations despite a recent détente.

“The Korean government expresses deep regret that the Japanese government approved the contents of elementary school textbooks that continue to make the unreasonable claims they have made over the past several decades,” Lim Soo-suk, spokesperson of the ministry, said in a statement.

The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology regularly examines and approves the content of textbooks in Japan.

Japanese textbooks submitted to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for contents approval in this file photo dated March 29, 2022. [YONHAP]
Japanese textbooks submitted to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for contents approval in this file photo dated March 29, 2022. [YONHAP]

Following a meeting Tuesday, it approved for publication of several textbooks for grades three to six in elementary school that claimed the Dokdo islets as Japanese “inherent territory.”

“In particular, we strongly protest the fact that the Japanese government once again approved the textbooks containing unreasonable claims about Dokdo, which is clearly our own territory historically, geographically and according to international law.”

The Dokdo islets, located in the East Sea and effectively controlled by Korea, are a painful reminder of Japan’s imperialistic past and its 1910-45 colonial rule over the peninsula.

Korea denies that a territorial dispute even exists as the Dokdo islets are historically, geographically and under international law an integral part of Korean territory.

Japan calls the islets Takeshima and claims them as its “inherent territory” in its official documents, including its national security strategy.

The textbooks approved by the Japanese government on Tuesday were also reported to have omitted the expression “forced” in describing the history of Koreans and Chinese forced to work by imperial Japan.

Lim, in his statement, said that Seoul expresses “strong regret” that the descriptions of forced labor were “changed in a direction that dilutes the nature of coercion.”

“The Korean government urges the Japanese government to sincerely inherit the spirit of apology and reflection of its past,” Lim said.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in his recent meeting with Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in Tokyo earlier this month, also referred to this spirit, which he said was about upholding the position of “previous cabinets on historical recognition.”

Hailed as a historic bilateral summit, the first to take place in either country in 12 years, the meeting between Yoon and Kishida gained a global spotlight as even a ranking White House official and the British foreign secretary issued statements welcoming an apparent thaw in Korea-Japan ties.

Relations were frozen for years as their dispute on the forced labor issue expanded to impact its trade and security cooperation.

After the Supreme Court in Korea ordered the Japanese companies Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate the forced labor victims in landmark rulings in 2018, acknowledging the illegality of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, Japan protested and placed export restrictions on Korea.

Korea subsequently threatened to walk out of its military intelligence pact with Japan.

Then the Korean government on March 6 announced that it will create a fund with donations from Korean companies that received certain benefits from Japan to compensate the victims instead, after which Yoon and Kishida met in Tokyo to hail a new chapter in their relations.

The history textbook decisions could jeopardize the recent thaw.

An exhibition room at the Northeast Asian History Foundation in western Seoul shows a model of the Dokdo islets on Tuesday. [YONHAP]
An exhibition room at the Northeast Asian History Foundation in western Seoul shows a model of the Dokdo islets on Tuesday. [YONHAP]

“The party cannot help but express strong regret and condemnation,” the People Power Party’s deputy floor leader Song Eon-seog said on Tuesday. “The Korean government should also convey its strong protest to the Japanese government.”

Members of the Democratic Party have already been criticizing the Yoon government following the summit for failing to win due returns from Japan in the recent visit, such as a direct apology from Kishida to the forced labor victims.

Japanese history textbooks have often derailed bilateral relations, even when they were considered to have been at their best after 1998 when Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi released a joint statement in which Obuchi expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s causing “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule.”

Japan’s approval of history textbooks three years later, which Korea said attempted to justify its 1910-45 occupation of Korea through a partial emphasis on how much their colonization contributed to Korea’s modernization, led to one of the strongest measures of protest from the Korean foreign ministry, a recall of its ambassador to Japan.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]