THE HAGUE – Japan and South Korea successfully created the semblance of an alliance in a U.S.-brokered trilateral summit in The Hague but have yet to find a clear path to fully improving their strained ties.
Tuesday’s talks, also involving President Barack Obama, began with a surprise from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — a formal greeting to South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivered in Korean with a smile: “President Park, I am glad to meet you.”
South Korean media said Park appeared unimpressed by Abe’s gesture, reporting that she replied by staring ahead “stony-faced.”
The three administrations chose a topic on which their leaders could easily agree: the need to cooperate in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear programs.
Abe and Park, as well as Obama, chose not to take up contentious issues in the trilateral talks, such as those related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and sovereignty over a pair of South Korean-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan.
The trilateral meeting marked the first formal talks between Abe and Park since the two leaders took office, Abe in December 2012 and Park in February 2013. Prior to the summit, the two had only chatted on the sidelines of previous international events.
Japan and South Korea have not held a formal one-on-one summit between their leaders since May 2012, when Yoshihiko Noda and Lee Myung-bak met in Beijing.
At the outset of the meeting, which was open to the press, Park said that having an opportunity to exchange opinions with Obama and Abe was “meaningful” at a time when the situation in North Korea has become more fluid. She said it is very important for the international community, especially South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, to fashion a united response.
Obama told the opening session: “A nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. Our trilateral cooperation has sent a strong signal to Pyongyang that its provocations and threats will be met with a unified response.”
Sitting between Abe and Park, Obama said that “the ties between our peoples run deep” and stressed that Washington’s commitment to the security of both Japan and South Korea is “unwavering.”
Not all agree, however. Eom Sang-yoon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul, said the meeting, under U.S. pressure, was a step toward warmer relations, but only a small one.
“Cooperation is possible between Seoul and Tokyo on North Korea, but there will be no breakthrough in their strained relations without a dramatic change in Abe’s attitude,” Eom said. “There is a long way to go before we see a bilateral summit between Park and Abe.”
But with a senior Japanese official saying it is getting harder to predict what North Korea will do, Tokyo and Seoul need to forge closer ties so they can deal with regional problems with Washington, their mutual security ally.
Abe, Park and Obama further agreed that it is imperative for “China to play the role that it is supposed to” in connection with international efforts to encourage Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programs, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, who briefed reporters on the results of the talks.
Kato did not elaborate, but was apparently hoping that Beijing would use its sizable influence with Pyongyang to press for denuclearization moves, so that the China-hosted talks on the issue can resume. Russia is also involved in the six-nation talks, which have been stalled since 2008.
Tokyo, Seoul and Washington are now likely to hold a meeting of senior defense officials, according to U.S. sources.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Abe said: “It was meaningful that the three countries agreed to cooperate and work closely over North Korea and (other) security issues in Northeast Asia.
“I talked to President Park for the first time,” he said. “I found again that Japan and South Korea share many issues we must tackle and recognized it is important (that leaders) have face-to-face talks in a candid manner.”
Abe said he will work on advancing bilateral relations “in a future-oriented manner.”
Addressing reporters Wednesday in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga echoed Abe’s remarks, saying, “Marking this as the first step, Japan will make further efforts together with South Korea toward establishing a multi-layered (relationship).”
Improved Japan-South Korea ties also serve Washington’s interests in the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. government officials and political pundits say. As Obama’s administration has been busy dealing with the Ukrainian crisis and the Syrian civil war, in addition to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it did not want to spend too much time persuading Japan and South Korea into mending fences.
Daniel Russel, assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a congressional hearing this month that it is “very much a diplomatic priority for the United States” to see friction between the two U.S. allies reduced quickly.
The diplomatic atmosphere prompted Washington to arrange the three-way talks at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. Such issues had already appeared on the brink of overshadowing the summit after Japanese and South Korean government officials engaged in a fresh round of exchanging barbs only days after Abe left Japan for the Netherlands.
Japanese government officials are scrambling to deal with displeasure in Seoul over a controversial remark on wartime history made Sunday by a close aide to Abe in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Suga, the top government spokesman, said he took Koichi Hagiuda to task immediately after the adviser to Abe publicly said the Japanese government should consider rewriting a 1993 apology for women who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels.
The following day, however, Suga expressed displeasure after Park agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Netherlands that close bilateral ties were cemented through a project commemorating an early 20th century anti-Japan Korean activist.
Scott Snyder, a Washington-based expert on U.S.-South Korea relations, urged Japan and South Korea to overcome bilateral differences, especially on wartime history, and to work more closely with the United States to deal with North Korean problems as well as regional tensions surrounding the rise of China in East Asia.
The South Korean government “is spending too much time thinking about Japan and I think the government of Japan is also probably spending too much time thinking about Korea,” Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations said.
If the U.S. cannot expect South Korea and Japan to weigh in on regional issues because they are too busy focusing on other issues, “that’s a problem,” Snyder said.