SEOUL – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed Monday to try to resolve as soon as possible the dispute over the “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels before and during World War II.
The feud has been a major obstacle to improving ties between two of Washington’s key allies.
Abe announced the agreement after the two leaders held their first formal talks since taking office, as they seek to move beyond a bitter wartime history that has haunted relations.
“Regarding the issue of the comfort women, I believe we should not leave behind difficulties for future generations as we try to build a future-oriented cooperative relationship,” Abe told reporters in Seoul after the talks, which lasted about an hour and 40 minutes.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of the normalization of (Japan-South Korea) ties this year. Keeping that in mind, we’ve agreed to accelerate talks for the earliest possible resolution,” he said.
The meeting was a diplomatic plus for Abe, who had sought two-way talks with Park amid a push by the United States for Japan and South Korea to improve relations in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Tokyo and Seoul have struggled to find common ground over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of Korea, particularly regarding the comfort women, or ianfu, as the girls and women, many of them Korean, are euphemistically known in Japan.
“I hope today’s summit will heal the bitter history in a broad sense and be a sincere one and an important opportunity to develop the two countries’ relationship,” Park told Abe at the start of the talks, the first formal two-way meeting between the two since Abe took office in late 2012 and Park in early 2013.
According to a transcript released by Park’s office, Abe said he wants to work with her “to build a new future of forward-looking Japan-Korea relations” and that an exchange of honest opinions by the leaders is needed.
Park said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun last week that resolving the comfort women dispute is central to better ties with Japan. South Korea says Japanese leaders have repeatedly failed to properly atone for Japan’s wartime atrocities.
On Monday, Park told reporters the issue should be resolved soon, in a way acceptable to the victims and other South Koreans.
Japan says the issue of wartime compensation was legally settled by a 1965 diplomatic treaty and that it stands by the Kono statement — a landmark 1993 apology issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The Abe administration worries that even if it takes fresh steps, South Korea will decline to bring the issue to a close.
Abe also raised the issue of rising tensions in the South China Sea, saying it is a cause for international concern and that Tokyo wants to cooperate with Seoul and Washington to ensure freedom of the seas.
A U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea last week in the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits claimed by Beijing.
The Park-Abe meeting followed a summit with them and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday, where they agreed to restore what had been an annual forum to work toward greater economic integration and regional cooperation.
“Japan, China and South Korea are neighbors, and because we are neighbors, there are difficult issues among us,” Abe said at a news conference with Park and Li.
South Korean and Japanese business executives who met last week in Tokyo expressed hope that better ties will improve bilateral trade.
Seoul’s ties with Beijing have tightened while the chilly relationship with Japan has been reflected in trade.
Trade with Japan accounted for 22 percent of South Korea’s total in 1991 but had fallen to 8 percent by 2014.
In contrast, South Korea’s trade with China rose to 21 percent of its total last year from just 4 percent in 1992, when they normalized ties.
“The (trilateral) summit opened the sluice gate for cooperation that’s been shuttered for some time now,” said Lee Ji-yong, who tracks Northeast Asian relations at the government-affiliated Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. “Economic interests are the imperative that compel these countries to cooperate. Still, history remains an obstacle along with territorial issues.”
The three countries, which collectively make up about a fifth of the world economy, are struggling to maintain the growth that turned them into economic powerhouses as they face slumping demand for their exports. The urgency of mending ties has also increased as North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and the range of its ballistic missiles, which can reach Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.
The summit was welcomed in the Chinese media, with Xinhua, China’s official news agency, saying the effort could help put pressure on North Korea to return to the six-nation disarmament talks, which also include the U.S. and Russia.
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