South Korea and Japan show signs of diplomatic thaw

South Korean President Park Geun Hye (left) has signalled she might hold a long-avoided summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye (left) has signalled she might hold a long-avoided summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.PHOTOS: APF, EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - After an extended period of glacial diplomatic mistrust, there are signs that South Korea and Japan, with prodding from their mutual US military ally, are making genuine, albeit hesitant, moves towards normalisation.

The biggest step could come in a matter of weeks with South Korean President Park Geun Hye signalling she might hold a long-avoided summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Currently on a four-day official visit to the United States, Park said in Washington on Thursday (Oct 15) that she was open to a sit-down with Abe on the sidelines of a trilateral leadership dialogue being held with China in Seoul.

"I can have such a meeting with him," said Park who has resolutely refused summit overtures from Japan since taking office nearly three years ago - until now.

Relations between the two neighbours have never been easy - clouded by sensitive, historical disputes related to Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula and, in particular, the issue of Korean "comfort women" forcibly recruited to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

Park has been particularly forceful in insisting that Tokyo has yet to properly atone for colonial-era abuses, and alluded to the issue again in her remarks in Washington.

In order for a summit with Abe to be "meaningful," timely progress was needed on the comfort women issue, Park said, stressing that only 47 of the women were still alive.

Japan maintains that the issue was settled in a 1965 normalisation agreement, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) in grants or loans to its former colony.

Further complicating rapprochement efforts is a bitter territorial dispute over a group of tiny South Korean-controlled islets in the East Sea (Sea of Japan).

US PRESSURE

Park's recent shift of tone is likely down to US pressure for both countries to try and put their differences behind them, or at least shelve them in order to deal with more pressing issues.

Park is due to hold talks with President Barack Obama later Friday (Oct 16).

South Korea and Japan are key US military allies in Asia, and Washington has barely concealed its impatience with a diplomatic rift it sees as weakening joint efforts to contain an increasingly assertive China.

"Park took a hardline, and domestically very popular stance on the comfort women issue from the start of her administration," said Kim Keun Sik, an international relations expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University.

"But under White House prompting, she now seems to be moving, perhaps half-heartedly, towards a position of compromise," Kim said.

South Korea and Japan are major trading partners, and economic exchanges have largely continued throughout the diplomatic freeze, along with practical defence cooperation.

 

Ahead of the trilateral leadership dialogue, the South Korean and Japanese defence ministers, Han Min Koo and General Nakatani, will meet in Seoul next week.

The two men last met in Singapore in May for what was the first bilateral defence ministry dialogue in four years.

As well as discussions on strengthening a united stance against the nuclear threat from North Korea, Nakatani will brief Han on the passage of new laws broadening the role of the Japanese military - legislation that has caused some consternation in Seoul.

The trilateral summits with China were initiated in 2008 and held annually until 2012 when they were suspended after Seoul-Tokyo relations went into one of their regular tail-spins.