Korea-Japan talks still up in the air

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Korea-Japan talks still up in the air

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Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye

A short meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, between President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had apparently been in the works, though as it turns out, Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine put a damper on those plans.

According to high-level sources from both countries, the talks had been planned before the Japanese prime minister’s December visit to the shrine, which pays tribute to the war dead and 14 Class-A World War II war criminals.

The Davos forum, which kicked off Jan. 22, was considered an ideal platform for the two leaders to meet one-on-one for the first time since both politicians took office. They could have likely discussed relevant historical issues amid tense diplomatic ties, including Japan’s forcible recruitment of Korean women and girls into a prostitution corps during World War II. The victims involved are often euphemistically referred to as “comfort women.”

Abe was inaugurated in December 2012 and Park last February, however, tensions have increased lately between the neighboring nations due to historical and territorial disputes, which have led to deteriorated relations and the postponement of a customary Korea-Japan summit.

One source told the JoongAng Ilbo on Sunday that another formal bilateral summit may have been scheduled between the two leaders in February or March if the 30-minute meeting between the two leaders in Davos had been carried out and gone well.

The bilateral summit could have taken place in Seoul or Tokyo or on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in late March. Holding the meeting in a third country, the source said, would also have been ideal.

“But because of Prime Minister Abe’s sudden visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, everything went downhill,” the source added.

Korea and Japan had agreed upon starting an official dialogue regarding Korea’s comfort women, a key point of discord between the two sides, the source said.

However, the Japanese government has continued to argue the comfort women issue was resolved in the 1965 Korea-Japan treaty - which normalized relations between Korea and Japan - claiming the agreement exempts it from paying individual compensation for any wrongdoing during its 1910-45 colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

The Japanese government also has not previously acknowledged the comfort women issue as an agenda item to be negotiated.

“Regarding historical issues, the two sides were reaching a consensus that Prime Minister Abe will express that [his administration] will succeed the Murayama Statement [of 1995], which apologized for [Japan’s] wartime aggressions and colonial rule, and the Kono Statement [of 1993], which acknowledged the coercion of women into sexual slavery,” a diplomatic source said.

Abe has raised controversy following remarks he made that seem to challenge both statements by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.

Washington is also said to have played a role in speeding along a Korea-Japan summit amid continued strife.

“The U.S. did not directly tell Japan to hold a Korea-Japan meeting … but unofficially emphasized that in the instance where President Barack Obama is scheduled for an Asia summit [in April], it is not desirable for him to visit when Japanese and Korean leaders have not yet met,” a high-level Japanese official said.

According to multiple diplomatic sources, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, in his Tokyo visit on Dec. 3, strongly recommended that Prime Minister Abe improve relations with Korea. The sources also said that during Biden’s visit to Seoul on Dec. 5, he conveyed Abe’s intentions to President Park, who “may have thought that Japan might be changing its perspective of the situation.”

Afterward, Park showed more willingness toward a Korea-Japan meeting and under-the-table negotiations between the two countries.

But despite diplomatic efforts, Abe went through with his visit to the shrine, a move Seoul and the international community frowned upon and doomed the possibility of a bilateral meeting with Korea. Those actions, sources agreed, were “inexplicable.”


BY LEE HYUN-KI, YOO JI-HYE [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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