SEOUL - Leave it to perpetually squabbling Northeast Asia to spice up that most vanilla of diplomatic activities: the meet-and-greet, photo-op-ridden international summit.
Details are still scarce just days before leaders from South Korea, Japan and China are set to meet this weekend in Seoul. The lead-up has seen South Korean and Japanese foreign ministries publicly dodging questions even as diplomats leaked barbed tidbits to reporters behind the scenes. Seoul announced only Wednesday the general timing for the meetings. And the Seoul-Tokyo bilateral meeting, their first formal talks at this level in 3½ years? It will be only a brief Monday morning talk, breaking before lunch. It wasn’t even on the initial schedule released by Tokyo.
The bickering confounds some observers because even though these summits are often devoid of substance, there is high symbolic importance in leaders from these powerful neighbors setting aside their many differences and putting on a good show. China and Japan are the world’s No. 2 and 3 biggest economies, respectively. South Korea and Japan are strong U.S. allies and Washington’s military and diplomatic bulwark in an unsteady region. All three have a keen interest in containing North Korea’s nuclear bomb ambitions.
The problem this week, as is often the case in Northeast Asia, appears to be history, and specifically the inability of Seoul and Tokyo to settle disputes stemming from Japan’s brutal colonial rule of Korea in the early 20th century.
Newspapers in Japan reported that the spat centered on Tokyo balking at Seoul’s pressure for Japan to make some sort of concession on the issue of Korean “comfort women,” who forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels. Many in South Korea feel that past Japanese apologies and attempts at recompense have fallen well short. This feeling has been compounded by a widespread view that the conservative Abe is whitewashing Japan’s wartime atrocities.
South Korea announced that President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet Monday, a day after they both meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Seoul has provided few other details but emphasized that the sex slave issue would be on the agenda. Japanese media have reported that Seoul suggested a meeting of just 30 minutes because Tokyo wouldn’t cave on the comfort women issue.
South Korean Ambassador to Japan Yoo Heung-soo, in a speech in Tokyo on Monday, urged Abe to make concessions on the issue when he meets with Park.
In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that “Japan’s position on the issue has not changed.” Suga didn’t say whether the topic would be raised in talks, but instead underlined the importance of the leaders meeting and talking.
Amid the wrangling, the Japanese point man on Korean affairs, Kimihiro Ishikane, met Tuesday with Lee Sang-duk, the Seoul Foreign Ministry’s top official on Northeast Asian affairs, on the sex slave issue.
The summit also represents another step in Beijing’s slow resumption of exchanges with Japan following a fissure in relations in 2012 over Tokyo’s nationalization of uninhabited East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
Their rift began to heal last year with a diplomatic settlement and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s brief meeting with Abe in Beijing.
China’s good relations with Seoul are symbolized by President Park’s decision to break ranks with other democratic leaders to attend a lavish military parade in Beijing last month.
Rather than Xi, however, China will be represented in Seoul by the less influential Premier Li Keqiang. But Li has a focus on economics, and Beijing says it wants to revive stalled talks on a three-way trade deal between the sides.
The meetings could be significant even if the three leaders only manage to build confidence and agree to more summits, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.
“They can focus on trade issues, security issues, and perhaps leave territorial and historical issues to the side for a moment,” he said. “Their relationships are far too important to neglect as they have.”