INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) - The culture and tourism ministers of South Korea, Japan and China agreed on Friday to step up cultural, sports and people-to-people exchanges despite tensions over trade and their shared history.
Their meeting in the South Korean port of Incheon comes amid an escalating trade and diplomatic dispute between Japan and South Korea, and an intensifying regional rivalry with a rising China.
The three countries promote cultural exchanges but differing views on their shared history, in particular the legacy of the Japan’s occupation of Korea and parts of China, have often hampered those efforts.
The culture ministers - Park Yang-woo of South Korea, Masahiko Shibayama of Japan and Luo Shugang of China - promised more cultural, sport and people-to-people exchanges over the next 10 years. During that time Japan will host the 2020 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics will held in Beijing.
“The three countries made it clear that future cultural exchanges and cooperation should be conducted based on the principles of mutual respect and reciprocity and in a way that promotes cultural diversity and peace in East Asia,” the ministers said in a joint statement.
The South Korean and Chinese culture ministers, who also oversee tourism, held separate talks with Japan’s tourism minister, Keiichi Ishii, and adopted another declaration pledging efforts to boost cooperation on tourism.
Park and Shibayama shared a cordial handshake alongside Luo as they signed agreements aimed at expanding three-way cultural programs, in contrast to the frosty exchanges between the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers recently.
The South Korean and Japanese culture ministers held separate talks on Thursday in which they agreed to continue cultural cooperation despite the political and economic feud, South Korea’s culture ministry said in a statement.
Shibayama said more civilian exchanges were needed to mend ties, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
“Japan-South Korea relations are in a tough spot and deepening exchanges at the grass-roots level through cooperation in the cultural field will help improve relations,” Shibayama told reporters after the three-way meeting.
Park also met Ishii later on Friday during which they agreed on the need for tourist exchanges and to work to “tackle relevant issues”, according to the South Korean ministry.
Relations between South Korea and Japan worsened late last year after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered compensation for some Koreans forced to work at Japanese firms during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation.
This month, Japan stripped South Korea of fast-track export status, which prompted South Korea to drop Japan from its own list and end a bilateral intelligence-sharing accord.
The row has taken a toll on tourist exchanges, with South Koreans cancelling travel plans as part of a boycott of Japanese products and services. The number of South Korean visitors to Japan fell last month to its lowest in nearly a year, Japan’s tourism agency said last week.
A dozen South Korean activists protested outside the meeting venue, calling on Japan to compensate Koreans forced to work for Japanese firms during its occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and the use of “comfort women” in its wartime brothels.
“Japan should apologize and compensate the victims of forced labor and comfort women if it wants to host the Olympics and pursue forward-looking relations with Korea,” the group said.
Reminders of Japan’s occupation are inflammatory for both sides, including the issue of “comfort women”, a Japanese euphemism for women, many of them Korean, forced into Japan’s wartime military brothels.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim in TOKYO; editing by Darren Schuettler