Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet next week with his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, the first Tokyo-Seoul summit in two years amid still-simmering nationalistic sentiment on both sides.
The U.S.-initiated trilateral summit is scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands on Monday and Tuesday. It will also be attended by President Barack Obama.
Experts say Seoul agreed to participate in the summit only after the U.S. put huge pressure on South Korea, as Washington has repeatedly urged the two nations to mend their ties and avoid destabilizing East Asia.
Meanwhile, officials in Tokyo admitted they also have been repeatedly urged by the U.S. to improve ties with South Korea. This apparently prompted Abe last week to reaffirm his earlier pledge not to revise the key government apology for the “comfort women” — Japan’s euphemism for the girls and women forced into sexual servitude in Imperial Japanese forces’ wartime brothels.
Abe’s compromise and pressure from the U.S. have left Park no choice but to meet Abe in The Hague, said Hideki Okuzono, a Korea expert and associate professor of international politics at the University of Shizuoka.
“Park accepted the proposal to hold the summit because the Abe administration cleared one of two conditions Seoul has demanded from Tokyo in order to hold it,” he said. “And behind those moves (by Abe and Park) was pressure from the United States.”
Seoul has demanded that Tokyo clearly state it will not revise either of two key government apologies and at the same time take concrete measures to solve the wartime sex slave issue.
The statements are the 1993 apology by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono over the wartime comfort women and the 1995 apology for Japan’s wars of aggression issued by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.
Abe made it clear last week that he will not revise either statement, despite an earlier administration plan to re-examine how the Kono statement was drafted through political negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo.
Okuzono also pointed out that the Abe-Park meeting will include Obama and it will be held on the sidelines of an international conference. This has also made it easier for Park to swallow the difficult proposal from the U.S., he said.
The three leaders are expected to talk mainly about cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threat. Historical issues between Japan and South Korea won’t be on the table, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.
“I don’t think it’s possible for the three countries to discuss (historical issues),” the official said on condition of anonymity. “The main topics will probably be about North Korea, because (the trilateral meeting will) be on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit.”
Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University and a Korea expert, agreed that the three leaders will not engage in substantial discussions toward improving the strained Seoul-Tokyo relationship.
Yet the summit will have symbolic meaning and may help the two leaders hold more talks in the future, he said.
“The purpose of the meeting is to leave a record (of Abe and Park meeting). The contents of the talks won’t matter much,” he said.
Kimura said holding the trilateral meeting will increase the chances of a bilateral summit on the sidelines of some other international conference, such as the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus 3.
“Both sides’ foreign ministries will have the chance to show their skills,” he said.
But the prospects for genuine improvement in bilateral relations appear bleak given the difficulty to settle the comfort women issue.
Japan set up the government-linked Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 and earmarked ¥2 million in atonement money for to each South Korean former comfort woman. Some, however, rejected the money, demanding instead direct compensation from the Japanese government.
Tokyo has maintained that all postwar compensation issues were settled “completely and finally” by the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty and an attached agreement.
Also given that the South Korean government is gearing up for June 4 quadrennial local elections, it is highly unlikely that Park will make any concession over historical issues with Japan, Okuzono said.
The handling of relations with Japan is an especially sensitive issue for Park. She is the daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee, who was considered pro-Japan in South Korea.
Many in South Korea see her as also being potentially “pro-Japan,” given her father’s legacy. If she shows any sign of yielding to Japan over historical issues, her approval rating could quickly plummet, Okuzono said.