First move is up to TokyoLeaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan have agreed to hold a trilateral summit on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit on Monday and Tuesday in The Hague. It will be the first official meeting between Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe amid bilateral ties that have been chilly at best since the conservative leaders took office 15 months ago. In fact, it will be the first Seoul-Tokyo summit talks in 22 months. Not since normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965 have the two neighbors required the presence of a U.S. president for their two leaders to talk to each other. It underscores how far the two countries have grown apart amid simmering resentment and anger over Japan’s outspoken right turn and revisionist views on issues of history and sovereignty.
The three-way summit comes at an opportune time. The traditional allies have many reasons to build a consensus on security - from North Korea’s nuclear development to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The United States has repeatedly pleaded with its two traditional Asian allies to mend their ties given the growing importance of a security alliance with the scaling down of the U.S. defense budget. On the surface, the meeting does not focus on bilateral issues. But the two Asian leaders could make an effort to restore ties and amicability if they have the will. Anti-Korea sentiment is at its peak in Japan. Korea likewise has never been so hostile to Japan.
In order for the three-way summit to provide a breakthrough in Korea-Japan relations, it would have to include the comfort women issue on its agenda. Bilateral ties soured after the Abe cabinet suggested it would disavow formal statements admitting and apologizing for past aggressions. Tokyo announced it would investigate testimony by Korean women that served as the basis for the 1993 statement issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, who acknowledged coercion and military involvement in recruiting Korean women into sexual slavery and running military brothels. In 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, offering a sincere apology for the damage and suffering caused by Japan’s military colonization. Seoul has repeatedly asked Tokyo to clarify its position and action to endorse the statements.
The two countries are discussing ways to hold working-level talks on these issues. The leaders must use the three-way summit as a momentum to restore the dignity of war victims. Otherwise, prospects for a bilateral summit could be foggy. Tokyo must remember it must act first if it wants to improve ties with Seoul.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 22, Page 30