Seoul, Tokyo talk Middle East policy, concerns

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Seoul, Tokyo talk Middle East policy, concerns

Amid chilled diplomatic ties between Seoul and Tokyo, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted its first bilateral director-general level meeting for Middle East policy.

The topic of discussion, though perhaps unexpected, can be interpreted as part of efforts to salvage relations between the two neighbors, with next year marking half a century of Korean and Japanese bilateral ties.

Relations have remained frosty over the past year, largely the result of continued historical and territorial disputes, particularly with the onset of the conservative Shinzo Abe administration.

Kwon Hee-seog, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for African and Middle Eastern Affairs, met with his Japanese counterpart, Tsukasa Uemura, to improve cooperation on pending concerns in the Middle East. Seoul traditionally holds discussions with Turkey and the European Union.

Han Hye-jin, a deputy spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, said the agenda included “the situations in Iraq and Syria, issues involving Israel and Palestine, sanctions against Iran and nuclear negotiations with the country, as well as the instability in Libya.”

Uemura also met with Lee Kyung-soo, the deputy minister for political affairs.

President Park Geun-hye has so far refused bilateral talks with Abe because of his administration’s provocative stance concerning its wartime aggressions and the way in which those views have been expressed and discussed. The issue of wartime sexual slavery carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army is of particular concern to Korea.

In her Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, President Park acknowledged the upcoming anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two nations.

“It is now time to set our sights on the next 50 years and start making progress toward future-oriented friendly, cooperative relations,” she said.

A government official here acknowledged that while pre-existing working-level diplomatic channels had continued here, “the Middle East policy talks have been labeled as the first of regularized meetings [and] can be seen as a kind of signal aiming to salvage [Korea-Japan] relations.

Foreign Minister Yun’s first visit to Tokyo for bilateral talks was canceled in April 2013 after a record number of Japanese lawmakers and cabinet members in the Abe administration visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A World War II criminals are honored.

A strategic meeting between the vice foreign ministers of the two countries was postponed after Abe unexpectedly visited the Yasukuni Shrine last December, which earned him international backlash.

Director-general level talks for security and foreign affairs between Korea and Japan, originally slated for last December, were also postponed indefinitely.

In March, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki finally visited Seoul and met with First Vice Minister Cho Tae-yong, but the two sides were reduced to exchanging formalities and repeating preexisting stances rather than engaging in strategic dialogue.

However, they did agree upon monthly director-general meetings to focus on resolving the issue of the Japanese military’s sexual enslavement of Korean girls and women during World War II.

The first such meeting was held in April in Seoul, though June’s meeting was postponed due to the Abe administration’s “reexamination” of the landmark 1993 Kono Statement, which effectively acknowledged and apologized to the women who were victimized. The fourth round of such talks is scheduled to be held in Japan at the end of the month.

BY JEONG WON-YEOB, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]



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