Shinzo Abe can improve Japan-South Korea ties with one simple word: sorry

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 2:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 8:38am

North Asia, with the world's second, third and 13th largest economies, should be working together to drive domestic, regional and global growth. Yet history and nationalism are in the way, the policies of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe largely preventing normal relations. Trilateral and bilateral ties are slowly warming, though, a meeting of bankers and finance ministers last month being followed this week, on the 50th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations, by the Japanese and South Korean leaders trading messages and their top diplomats meeting for the first time in three years. With ceremonies marking 70 years since the end of the second world war looming, there is every reason for governments to ensure that the momentum gathers pace.

China and South Korea have forged closer ties, so Abe holds the key. On paper, Japan and South Korea should have warm relations. They are democracies, have well-educated populations, are economically advanced and have the US as a close ally. Yet Japan's insincere apologies for military occupation and aggression, attempts to revise history and disputes over islands have pushed relations to near-lows.

Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye struck optimistic tones in ceremonies at opposite embassies on Monday. Both set aside months of diplomatic inflexibility and spoke of the need for cooperation so that there could be a "new future". The South Korean leader's hint in a media interview that a deal was close on the controversial issue of so-called comfort women who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during the war heightened hopes. Her foreign minister Yun Byung-se's two-day trip to Tokyo and meetings with his counterpart, Fumio Kishida, and Abe, were hailed as a step forward. The foreign ministers agreed that a summit of leaders should be held, although no framework or date was set.

Such a meeting will not take place until pre-conditions are met. For Park, that is an apology and settlement of the comfort women issue. But the US is pressuring for a softening of hardline positions and slowing economies have prompted a realisation of the benefits of cooperation.

Compromise is necessary, but so too, is the need for Japan to own up to historical facts and apologise for imperial wrongdoings. Its politicians have to stop visiting the Yasukuni shrine that honours war criminals. Abe can start that process by expressing genuine and heartfelt remorse.