Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye are expected to hold their first formal summit in Seoul on Nov. 1, amid concerns from the United States about the strained relations dogging the two key Asian allies.
Abe, who returned to power in December 2012, has repeatedly called for a bilateral summit, saying a number of unresolved issues between the two countries necessitate talks.
But as a condition for accepting a summit, Park, who took office in 2013, has demanded Japan make an effort to bridge their gaps on the issue of the “comfort women,” who were forced to provide sex for Imperial Japanese troops before and during World War II.
Seoul has stressed to Washington that historical issues are the main factor preventing closer ties with Japan, sources said.
In the U.S., meanwhile, concerns about what it sees as Abe’s revisionist approach to history have grown. These were spurred partly because of the Abe administration’s review of the 1993 statement by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which recognized the Japanese military’s direct involvement in the management of comfort women brothels and offered an unambiguous apology to the women.
To address Washington’s concerns, Abe expressed “deep remorse” for the last war in his April speech to the U.S. Congress. In addition, he made a reference to Japan’s apology for the conflict in his closely watched statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end World War II in August.
Those efforts have “helped dispel concerns in the United States and change the situation,” a Japanese government source said.
In response, Washington has repeated to Seoul that Japan and South Korea cannot afford to feud, given China’s increasingly bellicose moves in the region and North Korea’s nuclear and missile saber-rattling, sources said.
Under pressure from the U.S., Park is believed to have been leaning toward taking a more practical stance.
In her speech in Washington on Thursday, the South Korean leader referred for the first time to the possibility of holding a summit with Abe.
U.S. President Barack Obama, at a meeting with Park on Friday, called for improving the Japan-South Korea relationship — remarks a Japanese official described as a “display of solidarity among Japan, the United States and South Korea.”
However, it remains uncertain whether any summit will produce concrete results.
While the South Korean side places a top priority on the comfort women, Japan believes it “should not be touched” just to make the summit constructive, a senior Japanese diplomat said.
The two neighbors also appear unlikely to make progress on other key issues, including South Korea’s import restrictions on Japanese fishery products and their claims to the tiny Sea of Japan islets known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
“It’ll be difficult to find common ground at the first summit,” said another Japanese official, stressing the need for the two leaders to continue talks.