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Japanese, South Koreans at odds on wartime labor issue, poll shows

Police officers keep guard around the Japanese Consulate in Busan, South Korea, on April 14, 2019. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese and South Koreans have vastly differing views on rulings last year by the South Korean Supreme Court ordering Japanese companies to compensate wartime laborers for forced work, a survey showed Wednesday.

    Among the roughly 2,000 people polled across both countries, 58.7 percent of Japanese said they do not approve of the court decision, while 75.5 percent of South Korean's expressed support.

    The issue has caused diplomatic relations between the neighboring countries to deteriorate sharply, with South Korea calling on Japan to own up to atrocities committed during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

    Tokyo maintains that Seoul forfeited its right to make compensation claims as part of a 1965 treaty that provided it with $500 million in financial aid.

    The annual survey was conducted between May and June by Tokyo-based nonprofit think tank Genron NPO and the Seoul-based East Asia Institute.

    Asked how the issue should be resolved, 28.4 percent of Japanese said they do not know, followed by 22.2 percent who favored setting up an arbitration panel involving a third country or taking the matter to the International Court of Justice.

    Meanwhile, 58.1 percent of South Koreans said the Japanese companies -- Nippon Steel Corp., previously called Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp., and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. -- should pay the workers in line with the court rulings.

    The respondents were also asked for their views on an incident last December where a South Korean destroyer allegedly locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese patrol plane in Japan's exclusive economic zone outside its territorial waters in the Sea of Japan. South Korea has denied the accusation, hitting back with its own claims of Japanese planes flying dangerously close to its warships.

    According to the survey, more than 60 percent of respondents on both sides said they believe the version of events given by their own government.

    Yasushi Kudo, head of Genron NPO, said that the wartime labor issue and the fire-control radar incident had a direct role in souring ties between the two countries.

    "Both governments should acknowledge the desire among their people to improve the relationship," he told a press conference in Tokyo.

    The survey, however, revealed a contrast in public opinion.

    On the Japanese side, only 20 percent said they had favorable feelings toward South Korea, the lowest since 2013 when the survey began, while a record-high 31.7 percent of South Koreans said they had favorable feelings toward Japan.

    Continuing to rank the top among reasons for Japanese seeing South Korea in a negative light, at 52.1 percent, was the country's criticism of Japan over wartime history. Asked for reasons to like South Korea, roughly half cited cuisine and shopping, followed closely by TV dramas and music.

    The most common reason for South Koreans to see Japan favorably was the belief, held by 69.7 percent, that Japanese are "kind and honest," followed by the view that Japan is an "advanced country with a high standard of living."

    More than 60 percent of respondents on both sides said Japan-South Korea relations are poor at the moment, though only 40.2 percent of Japanese called for efforts to improve ties compared with 70.8 percent of South Koreans.

    On the likelihood of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons amid negotiations with the United States, South Koreans were a near-even split between optimists and pessimists at around 30 percent each. Japanese were somewhat more cynical, with 47.4 percent saying denuclearization is unlikely.

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