Aiming for a Tokyo-Seoul summit

The first formal meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye — which took place in a trilateral setting along with U.S. President Barack Obama — may be a positive step for repairing Tokyo-Seoul ties. But Abe and Park need to follow that up with a bilateral summit as quickly as possible by judiciously handling the historical and territorial issues that have strained the relationship.

The talks held on Tuesday in The Hague, after the three leaders took part in the Nuclear Security Summit, had reportedly been brokered by the United States in a bid to set the stage for thawing the political ice between its key Asian allies before Obama’s scheduled visit to the two countries in April.

An unusual situation continues between Japan and South Korea as their top leaders have not met on their own despite more than a year passing since they took office. The last official meeting between Japanese and South Korean leaders was May 2012 during talks in Beijing between Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, of the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, and Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. The very fact that Abe and Park needed the U.S. president as an intermediary underscores the seriousness of the current chill in Tokyo-Seoul ties.

During the meeting held at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, the three leaders spent much of their time confirming what they agree on — that they would closely cooperate in responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. None of the thorny issues between Tokyo and Seoul, including the territorial dispute over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan or the row over the “comfort women” forced into sexual servitude for Japanese troops before and during World War II, were discussed.

Since taking office for the second time in December 2012, Abe has toured the world for diplomatic meetings roughly once a month, but with the notable absence of formal talks with South Korean and Chinese leaders. Japan’s ties with China remain plagued by several issues including the row over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and Beijing’s protest of Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

Two days before the talks with Abe and Obama, Park met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and expressed a common stance against Japan over historical perspectives. They reportedly agreed that the recent opening of a memorial hall in Harbin, northeast China, honoring Korean independence hero Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated the first resident-general of Japan-controlled Korea, Hirobumi Ito, in 1909, has helped strengthen unity between the two countries.

China obviously has an interest in keeping a wedge between the two U.S. allies in East Asia as it tries to hold off American influence in the region. Increasingly wary of the strained Japan-China relations, the U.S. also fears that the divide between Tokyo and Seoul could damage its regional interests.

As the U.S. tried to broker the trilateral summit, Abe tamed his hawkish position on some thorny issues with South Korea, pledging that his administration would not alter the 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledging Japanese military involvement in the recruitment of women to front-line brothels. This was just weeks after Cabinet members had said they would review the process in which the statement was made.

At the Tuesday meeting, Abe and Park concentrated on taking a united stand with Obama against North Korea, which test-fired two intermediate-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan just as the trilateral talks were being held. Abe and Park need to ultimately overcome the issues between Japan and South Korea on their own without U.S. assistance. Both sides need to make greater efforts to achieve what Abe described as a “future-oriented relationship” between neighbors that “share basic values and strategic interests.”