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Disputes still simmer, risking cosy Japan-South Korea ties

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Japan and South Korea still have work to do to shore up their relationship, analysts say, after their leaders pledged to work closer together and sidestepped historical disputes that clouded past ties.
At a Monday summit Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and President Lee Myung-Bak vowed to develop a "future-oriented, mature partnership" — turning a page in relations strained by territorial disputes and lingering bitterness at Japan's harsh 1910-1945 colonial rule.
Instead, they agreed to work closely to counter the global economic downturn as well as to denuclearise North Korea and reconstruct Afghanistan.
Analysts said the new relationship, which the Korea Times described as "in its best shape in a decade" was forged to combat the global economic turmoil, which threatened not only economies but also political stability.
"I would say the positive summit was a desperate performance by leaders who are both going downhill," said Tetsuro Kato, professor of politics at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University.
Japan's Aso, under fire for a series of verbal blunders, has failed to impress voters with his economic measures.
After his high-profile diplomatic weekend, he was greeted on his return home with an Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll showing a 19 percent support rating.
This compared to 48 percent in late September when Aso took power in the world's second-largest economy.
"The leaders only confirmed an economic partnership for the time being," Kato said. "President Lee knows how unpopular Aso is, but Lee himself is in a tough situation with the value of the won falling that much."
The countries have already started working together. Their central banks last month announced an agreement to expand a yen-won swap arrangement to 30 billion dollars from three billion.
On Monday South Korea agreed to actively support Japanese investment in its parts and materials sector, in a move to increase cooperation and cut Seoul's 30 billion dollar trade deficit with Tokyo.
"The relationship, which has been fragile over historical disputes, has not changed at all," Kato said.
A row has simmered for decades over Japan's claim to tiny Seoul-administered islands — known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japan — in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
Japan's announcement last week that it planned to extract energy resources from its seabed sparked alarm in Seoul, which demands no research projects around the rocky islets.
Aso has also recently admitted that Koreans and Allied prisoners worked in his family's coal mine during World War II.
Relations had soured in recent years over the annual pilgrimage by then-premier Junichiro Koizumi to a Tokyo shrine which honours war dead including war criminals.
In Seoul the two leaders "did not touch on any issues on history," Aso told a joint press conference Monday. Lee said relations had "wavered" during difficult periods but never moved backwards.
Hidekazu Kawai, professor at Tokyo's Gakushuin University, said the new relationship "would fail altogether if some politician makes a gaffe" over controversies.
Aso has in the past angered other Asian nations by praising elements of Japanese imperialism, but has made an effort since becoming prime minister not to irritate neighbouring countries.
"They are just shelving pending issues because of the time" of economic difficulties, Kawai said.
Some analysts were more upbeat.
"So far, South Korea-Japan relations have focused too much on bilateral pending issues," said Jin Chang-Soo, an expert with Seoul's Sejong Institute think-tank.
"The summit is a positive development," Jin said, noting the Asian neighbours have been "overwhelmed" by disputes in the past.
"Holding a summit is better than not holding one," he said.

Afghan insurgency inspiring new fighters

Afghanistan's long years of unrest have produced a new generation of Islamic militants, many of them bent on holy war, who are reinforcing the "old Taliban" in their deadly insurgency, analysts say.
When the Taliban regime was toppled in a US-led invasion in late 2001, the hardliners were considered a spent force.
But in their safe havens across the border in Pakistan, they have been able to regroup, recruit and — armed with new ideologies, funds and warfare from the Al-Qaeda terror network — make a deadly comeback, analysts say.
"Today's Taliban are different to what they were in 2001," said Waheed Mujda, a former foreign ministry official in the Taliban government who has written a book on the hardliners' five years in office.
"Back in 2001 and before, the Taliban were a nationalist movement trying to gain power and bring stability to Afghanistan," he said, referring to the anarchy of the 1990s when the country was mired in civil war.
"Over the past seven or eight years, most of their leaders have turned into dangerous radical Islamists who now think beyond Afghanistan's borders, willing to confront US interests worldwide — something like Al-Qaeda."
The presence of thousands of (mainly Western) foreign troops in Afghanistan has helped these leaders recruit a new generation of fighters to battle what they call "the occupation of their Islamic land by infidels," he said.
"There are some Arab fighters among them, maybe hundreds, and some Pakistani jihadists, but most of the fighters are ordinary Afghans — youths recruited from remote villages and refugee camps in Pakistan," Mujda said.
"In Afghanistan it's never difficult to find fighters for wars against foreign elements, especially if they are non-Muslims," he said.
Afghan historian and political commentator Habibullah Rafi agreed.
The insurgents fighting against the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai are a "combination of old and new Taliban," he said.
"The leaders are the same old leaders but the foot soldiers are new recruits who have joined the Taliban against the international forces in a holy war.
"The Taliban message is, 'Defend your country against foreign occupation'. This is a strong message, which has helped recruit thousands of new fighters from among passionate Afghan villagers."
Afghanistan's mostly destitute villages have perhaps seen the least of the billions of dollars in foreign aid that have been pumped into the country since the fall of the Taliban government.
The jobs, development and assertion of authority by Karzai's government and security forces have not reached the villages, creating a disaffected pool of uneducated young men hungry for cash and power — ripe for Taliban recruitment.
"The absence of Afghan forces in the provinces has created a favourable situation for the Taliban," analyst Haroon Mir from the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies said.
"Taliban take advantage of the population's dissatisfaction with the government and with the foreign presence in the country," he said.
The international military forces here describe tiers of men involved in the unrest — from hard-core ideologues influenced by Al-Qaeda, to "guns for hire," to those who want instability so the illegal opium trade remains unchecked.
This makes it difficult to say how many Taliban fighters there actually are, but US military officials have said they may number up to 20,000.
The military says it has been able to take out some mid-level commanders in the Taliban's "old guard" although the movement's fugitive leader, the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, is still at large.
This has seen the emergence of "less ideological individuals less concerned about using un-Islamic methods of warfare and of raising funds," said British Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, deputy commander of the NATO-led force, referring to suicide attacks and the opium business.
"There is no doubt that Al-Qaeda is providing financing, it is providing command and control," he added.
"It's helping recruiting, logistics, intelligence and training from across the border in the safe areas, in the tribal areas of Pakistan."
Closely linked to the Taliban is the Haqqani network, led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, which is suspected of staging some of last year's most spectacular attacks in Kabul, such as the storming of a five-star hotel.
The other main radical Islamic group active here is Hezb-e-Islami of former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar which carries out attacks mainly in the east and near Kabul, apparently separate from the Taliban.
But "Taliban are still the main group behind this insurgency," Mujda said.
Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, asked about claims that his fighters are trained in Pakistani camps funded by Al-Qaeda and foreign Islamist groups, responded: "We are Afghans."
"Taliban are not the product of a factory," Ahmadi told AFP by telephone. "They have risen from this society and are being supported by this society. We are fighting for our beliefs."