The relationship between Japan and South Korea plunged into a chilly state following then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to disputed Takeshima Island in the Sea of Japan in August 2012. The policies of his successor, Ms. Park Geun-hye, have not led to an improvement in the situation. Bilateral ties are said to be the worst since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.
To change this situation, both Ms. Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe need to have a heart-to-heart talk. The fact that the two leaders have yet to hold a summit meeting and that there is no prospect for such a meeting being held within this year is odd, to say the least.
One reason for the chilly ties is Mr. Abe’s views on such issues as Korean “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex to members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces during World War II, the definition of aggression, and the Murayama Statement in which Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized on Aug. 15, 1995, to Asian peoples for Japan’s past colonialism and military aggression. Mr. Abe’s statements have confirmed suspicions that he is a revisionist on these important bilateral issues.
During her visit to Washington in May, Ms. Park said that Japan’s regressive stance on historical issues and a territorial dispute make it difficult to build a trustful relationship with Japan.
Deviating from the tradition of South Korean presidents making Tokyo their next destination following trips to Washington, Ms. Park instead went to Beijing in June. Apparently taking aim at Japan, she said in a speech at Tsinghua University that cooperation in the political and security fields in Northeast Asia is not making much progress because of “emotional conflict and distrust” over the issues of history and security.
In July, the high courts of Seoul and Busan handed down rulings calling on Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Koreans who were forced to labor for them during World War II. Japan responded by pointing out to South Korea that an agreement attached to the Japan-South Korea basic relations treaty of 1965 says that individual citizens cannot file claims related to events that happened on or before Aug. 15, 1945.
In early September, South Korea banned imports of fishery products from eight Japanese prefectures, citing leaks of radioactively contaminated water into the sea from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
In late September, Ms. Park said that it would be difficult for her to meet with Mr. Abe unless he displays a sincere attitude on a variety of issues including the sex slaves.
This state of relations between Japan and South Korea could have a negative impact on cooperation among the two countries and the United States in diplomacy and security in Northeast Asia.
If Ms. Park is dissatisfied with Japan’s attitudes on various issues, she should meet Mr. Abe and question him directly.
For his part, Mr. Abe should make serious efforts to dispel Korean suspicions by earnestly reconsidering earlier statements on the issues of sex slaves, aggression and the Murayama Statement.
Both leaders should realize that the frigid state of bilateral ties is harming the interests of both countries and should take positive steps toward building a better relationship.
On Friday, Mr. Abe stated that his Cabinet “is of the mind that it will take the position of preceding Cabinets — that Japan inflicted enormous damage and pain on people in Asian countries.”
While this is a welcome step in the right direction, Mr. Abe needs to drop the opaque language and make a concrete statement regarding this and other issues.