SEOUL, South Korea — Unleashing fresh criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea on Saturday urged him to be honest and courageous enough to face his country’s history of aggression in the early 20th century, especially its enslavement of Asian women in Imperial Army brothels.
“True courage lies not in denying the past but in looking squarely at the history as it was and teaching growing generations the correct history,” Park said, referring to Japan’s often brutal colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. “The more one denies the history of the past, the more wretched and more isolated one gets.”
A day earlier, Abe’s government said it would re-examine a landmark 1993 apology it made to the sex slaves, commonly known by the euphemism “comfort women.”
Government officials said Friday that a team of scholars would examine whether the apology issued in 1993 by Tokyo’s chief Cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono, had been supported by historical evidence.
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The so-called Kono Statement acknowledged for the first time the use of coercion in recruiting women to provide sex to Japanese soldiers, a stance supported by most scholars of the era. But in recent years, some nationalist politicians in Japan have called for the scrapping of the statement, saying there was insufficient evidence.
Park made her comments during a nationally televised speech on the anniversary of a 1919 uprising by Koreans against their colonial masters. South Korean leaders traditionally commemorate the anniversary, an important national holiday, with overtures or warnings against Japan and North Korea.
Besides lashing out at Japan, this year’s speech struck a hopeful note on North Korea, proposing regular family reunions on the divided Korean Peninsula. Late last month, the two Koreas held their first family reunions in three years; hundreds of aging Koreans separated by the Korean War were reunited for a few days.
The reunions were considered a significant step after relations between the two Koreas hit a low last year, partly over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.
Park called the reunions an important step toward improving relations between the two Koreas and eventually reunifying them. When liberating Korea from Japan at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States installed client regimes in Pyongyang and Seoul, a division over which Koreans still nurse a grievance.
“A reunified nation, a reunified Korean Peninsula, would complete the spirit of the March 1 Movement, in which our ancestors rose up, calling for national independence and self-esteem,” Park said, referring to the 1919 anti-Japanese uprising.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have long been prickly because of the colonial past. But they have been aggravated further under Park and Abe.
Since she took office in February last year, Park has refused to hold a summit meeting with Abe and has fired off a steady stream of criticism of the Japanese leader, whom South Korea considers a nationalist demagogue trying to glorify his country’s World War II history and deny responsibility for some of its most horrific elements. Abe recently raised tensions further by visiting a shrine that honored war criminals.
During a visit to Seoul last month, Secretary of State John Kerry urged the two main U.S. allies in Northeast Asia to “put history behind” them and work together to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats and to counterbalance the growing influence of China.
Park was not in a conciliatory mood Saturday, referring to the Japanese apology that Abe’s government said was being re-examined.
“How a nation perceives its history is the compass indicating where it is headed,” Park said, reminding Japan that the Kono Statement was one of the key documents on which South Korea had tried to build friendly relations with Japan.
She focused much of her speech on what she described as the urgent need for Japan to resolve long-running grievances over the former sex slaves, who have been campaigning to win compensation from Japan.
Park said time was running out because only 55 of the 237 South Korean women who had spoken out about their experiences were still alive.