Progress urged in ties with Japan

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Progress urged in ties with Japan

Improving Korea and Japan’s strained relationship is more important than hosting events to honor the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties, President Park Geun-hye said on Monday, appealing to her aides to cast aside their differences and cooperate on pending issues.

In a meeting with her senior presidential secretaries, Park noted that both nations will celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic normalization next week.

“It will be meaningful for Korea and Japan to hold various events to mark that day, but I think how we untangle the knot in deadlocked relations is more important,” she said.

“Although there are some issues on which we differ, we need to resolve pending issues separately and find a way for future-oriented development in bilateral relations based on matters that require cooperation.”

Korea and Japan will mark 50 years of diplomatic ties on June 22.

Japanese media has speculated that Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se will visit Tokyo next week, though the Korean government has refused to confirm the reports.

The Asahi Shimbun reported last week that Yun will visit Japan to meet with his counterpart Fumio Kishida and attend an event in Tokyo on Monday to commemorate the anniversary.

Seoul said last week that the two governments are discussing plans for officials from both nations to attend ceremonies hosted by the other, though no decision has been finalized.

Park’s comments regarding an improvement in Korea-Japan relations came shortly after an earlier media interview released late Friday with the Washington Post in which she discussed historical tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.

In the account, the president specifically mentioned the thousands of young women and girls, mostly Korean, forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to serve in military brothels during World War II.

“There has been considerable progress on the ‘comfort women’ issue, and we are in the final stages of our negotiations,” Park was quoted as saying, referring to the victims by the commonly used euphemistic term. “So I think we can expect to look forward to a very meaningful 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conducted talks with Japan since April 2014 to address the issue. The latest round of talks, the eighth of its kind, concluded last week.

Asked to elaborate on the progress made, Park said, “Obviously, because these are behind-the-scenes discussions, I would be remiss to disclose the elements of the discussions.”

Korea and Japan’s relationship has remained at a standstill, she added, largely due to the repeated attempts by the Shinzo Abe administration to whitewash Japan’s wartime history. The president has consistently demanded that Abe issue an official apology to the victims to “heal their wounds and bring honor to them before another passes away.”

Last week, two of the remaining survivors died, leaving the total number of former comfort women at 50.

Since taking office, Park has refused to hold talks with Japan.

When asked if she would meet with Prime Minister Abe, Park responded, “I have had a chance to engage with him on a number of occasions,” though she declined to say whether she would meet with him.

Park’s interview was met by Tokyo with a seemingly apparent mixture of confusion and displeasure.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, one senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said that it was difficult to assess from what perspective there had been “considerable progress.”

“I don’t know what exactly [Park] meant when she said ‘progress,’” a senior official at Japan’s Foreign Ministry told the Yomiuri Shimbun regarding the president’s remarks. “No specific progress has been made between Japan and South Korea in meetings.”

According to the newspaper, another Japanese government source remarked, “South Korea likely intends to tell the United States that it is making efforts to improve ties between Japan and South Korea.”

The interview with the Washington Post, the Blue House said, took place on Thursday, as it was scheduled ahead of Park’s planned trip to the United States. However, she announced her decision to cancel the trip on Wednesday to stay in Korea to deal with the recent outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Park spoke in Korean during the interview, with the English translation of her remarks posted on Friday by the Washington Post. The Blue House refused to provide the Korean-language transcript.

In her meeting with the presidential secretariat on Monday, Park added that the government will try to reschedule a visit to the United States before the end of this year.

The trip, initially slated to begin Sunday, included talks with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House.

“We must make a special effort so that our decision won’t affect our diplomacy with the United States and other neighbors,” she said. “We should closely cooperate with the United States to reschedule the Korea-U.S. summit this year.”

Foreign Minister Yun, meanwhile, left for the United States on Sunday.

He is scheduled to visit Washington on Monday to formally sign a renewed nuclear energy cooperation pact with Korea’s biggest ally. He will also meet with White House officials to discuss rescheduling Park’s trip.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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