AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Two key American allies, Japan and South Korea, are marking the 50th anniversary of an important treaty - the one that normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries. They signed the treaty after years of war and the Japanese colonization of Korea. But NPR's Elise Hu reports, it's an awkward anniversary.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: On a day to mark the restoration of a relationship, protesters hold up the signs of ongoing acrimony. Koreans outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul chant, compensate, compensate. They want war reparations for what happened during the early part of the 20th century, when Japan not only colonized the Korean peninsula, but forced women and girls to serve as prostitutes for the military or as comfort women.
MICHAEL CUCEK: There were many, many - tens of thousands of women who were trafficked all across the empire. Most of the women that were trafficked came from the Korean peninsula.
HU: Michael Cucek is a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Sophia University.
CUCEK: On the South Korean side, there's simply an institutionalized hatred of Japan. And here in Japan, you can go to the bookstore and in front is going to be a big section just about how terrible Koreans are.
HU: In Tokyo, Japanese protesters outside the Korean embassy say the war crimes at the center of disputes never happened at all. Hiroomi Igarashi is one of them.
HIROOMI IGARASHI: (Through interpreter) Japan has been blamed for things which didn't even take place and made to apologize over and over. Why don't we terminate the relationship for now?
HU: Despite the sourness from citizens, both governments' heads of state are playing nice this week to commemorate their diplomatic coming together 50 years ago. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed up at an anniversary event in Tokyo. And at a concurrent reception in Seoul, the Japanese embassy hosted the Korean president, Park Geun-hye.
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PARK GEUN-HYE: (Foreign language spoken).
HU: "We must free ourselves from the heavy burden of history," she said. "And once we undertake that journey, this year, we'll start a shared journey toward a new future." The unknowable future is a key reason to maintain ties. Trade between Japan and Korea benefits both economies, and on the security front, they both want to keep a rising China and nuclear-armed North Korea in check.
MASARU SATO: Japan and Korea share a lot of strategic interests.
HU: That's Japanese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Masaru Sato.
SATO: I hope that with the presence of both leaders attending these commemorative events, I think the big boost will be given to improve the current, you know, bilateral relations and to reinforce the ties for the next 50 years.
HU: A hopeful posture for two nations that still seem more like frenemies than genuine pals. Korea wants a stronger apology for those wartime comfort women, and both nations are fighting over dual claims to the same islands. So despite songs of togetherness sung at both ceremonies and the hopeful notes about the future, they're still at a standstill about the past. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.