A glimmer of hopeJapan’s Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki visits Korea today for deputy ministerial-level talks. Our Foreign Ministry said Saiki will discuss the ever-worsening Seoul-Tokyo relations and the tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It is the first high-level meeting between the two governments since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December.
Despite our Foreign Ministry’s downplaying of the meeting, Saiki’s trip to Seoul has attracted our attention, given the sensitive timing. President Park Geun-hye and Abe are scheduled to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit 2014 in The Hague later this month. U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Korea and Japan next month. The United States is strongly calling on Korea and Japan to improve their ties. Saiki had discussed a Park-Abe summit with the Korean ambassador to Japan, Lee Byung-kee, before Abe’s visit to the shrine.
The message Saiki will deliver to the Park Geun-hye administration will likely serve as a barometer for future Korea-Japan relations. What is drawing our attention is the Japanese government’s official position on the comfort women issue. Most of the former sex slaves for Japan’s imperial Army are dead, with only 55 of them alive. As their average age is 88, not many days are left.
Restoring their dignity is not only a humanitarian issue that can’t be delayed, but also a requirement for new Seoul-Tokyo ties. Both countries have had discussions to address the issue - between the Lee Myung-bak government and Yoshihiko Noda cabinet and between the Park government and the Abe cabinet. Under the Lee administration, both sides came close to a resolution based on an apology by the Japanese prime minister and financial help for the victims. A settlement must begin with the Abe cabinet’s inheriting the 1993 Kono Statement, which admitted - and apologized for - the government’s forced comfort women program.
Instead of blindly sticking to its earlier positions that Japan had already compensated victims through the 1965 Korea-Japan Treaty, the Abe cabinet needs to approach the issue from a broader, universal and humanitarian perspective. Japan must understand that no one is siding with Tokyo on this issue. Korea also needs to appreciate Japan’s previous efforts, like the establishment in 1994 of the Asian Women’s Fund. There is no diplomatic compromise that can satisfy both sides 100 percent. We hope Saiki’s visit will help pave the way for a better future.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 12, Page 34