SEOUL, March 28 (UPI) -- A diplomatic spat between South Korea and Japan over an ever-growing list of grievances is a source of concern, South Korean lawmakers said Thursday.
Anxiety over deteriorating ties, among Seoul's politicians affiliated with the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, comes at a time when both countries have failed to agree on a host of issues, ranging from reparations for "comfort women" and forced laborers, to the appropriateness of an apology from the Japanese emperor for the colonial past.
By Wednesday a Japanese decision to describe a disputed set of islets known as Dokdo or Takeshima as an "integral territory of Japan" in elementary school textbooks provoked anger among South Koreans.
Japan's latest decision on government-approved textbooks has invited criticism and condemnation from Korean politicians, but their misgivings about Tokyo's policies are being offset by uneasiness about the tit-for-tat measures that accelerated in 2018.
Kang Chang-il, head of the nonpartisan parliamentarians' union, and a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party, described the current period of bilateral relations as a trial.
"For lawmakers who wish for better relations [with Japan], we are going through a period of hardship," Kang said at a general meeting of the union on Thursday.
Kang is leading diplomatic efforts on the parliamentary level and is genuinely seeking improved ties with Japan.
But in February in an interview with a local newspaper, Kang defended comments from South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, who had said the emperor of Japan ought to apologize for wartime crimes. He also said Japanese politicians overreacted to Moon -- who bears no relation to President Moon Jae-in.
On Thursday Kang again raised the issue of reconciliation, saying he hoped Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would act in a "broad-minded manner."
The disparity between competing and often conflicting goals in Seoul may be taking a toll on South Korean politicians across the spectrum, who, like their constituents, denounce the colonial past and think taking a stand against the right-wing nationalism of Prime Minister Abe is the patriotic thing to do.
But reactions from Tokyo, often in the form of prompt responses to recent South Korean remarks, or complaints lodged with the Korean foreign ministry, have quickly escalated tensions that may not be in Korea's national interest, lawmakers said.
Kim Hak-yong, a lawmaker with the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, suggested Thursday increasing disputes is a bad move.
"Korea-Japan relations are going in a direction that is not beneficial to the national interest," Kim said. "This is a cause for great worry."
Kim, a conservative, said the activities of the union, established during the Cold War when Seoul and Tokyo were aligned with Washington against communist powers, needs to be "better known" across parliament.
The union and its committees have a budget approved for use toward bilateral exchange. The group sponsors South Korean parliamentary visits to Japan, and is the counterpart to Japan's Japan-Korea Parliamentarians' Union.
The exchanges are an opportunity to make personal contact, a valuable experience for politicians in both democracies. On Thursday, the group proposed the next joint conference be held in Kyoto, rather than in Tokyo, and subsequently in the South Korean city of Gyeongju, the capital of a Korean kingdom dating back to antiquity.
The choice of cities may be symbolic. Japan and Korea had heavy cross-border influence on each other in ancient times. In 2001, Emperor Akihito went as far as to say he "felt a certain kinship with Korea" given the imperial family's chronicled origins.
But even as plans are being proposed, the union could be coping with budget cuts that may be limited to certain activities, such as travel.
Kang confirmed payroll expenses have been cut, while others said budget cutbacks are "significant."
The union said Thursday its annual subsidy was about $460,000 in 2018, but that it also "returned" about $100,000 of personnel and working expenses.
In 2016, the union came under local scrutiny following reports it had received nearly $10 million in subsidies from 1997 to 2015 without providing "legal evidence."