Park Geun-hye

South Korea, Japan and the US to hold summit in The Hague next week

South Korea and Japan to hold summit with US next week in an attempt to improve relations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 10:57pm

South Korea and Japan will hold a three-way summit with the United States next week, Seoul said yesterday, in a diplomatic breakthrough after Washington urged the pair to mend badly strained ties.

The meeting, on Monday or Tuesday, will be hosted by US President Barack Obama at The Hague in the Netherlands, on the sidelines of an international nuclear conference. It will mark the first formal talks between South Korea's President Park Geun-hye and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since they took office more than a year ago.

Although not a one-on-one encounter, the talks will be a significant step forward because Park has repeatedly ruled out a summit with Abe until Tokyo demonstrates sincere repentance for "past wrongdoings".

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest ebb for years, mired in emotive issues linked to Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, its wartime use of women in military brothels, and a territorial dispute over islands. Recent surveys have shown that the Japanese leader is more unpopular with South Koreans than North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un.

But prospects for a meeting rose earlier this month when Abe promised to honour Tokyo's two previous apologies over its colonial past, issued in 1993 and 1995. Park welcomed Abe's pledge, saying she hoped it would pave the way for better bilateral ties.

South Korea has accused Japan of showing insufficient remorse for wartime abuses, particularly the use of sex slaves, known as "comfort women". Japanese politicians express exasperation at the repeated requests for contrition, pointing to numerous apologies as well as a 1965 agreement that normalised relations and included a large payment to Seoul.

The situation was exacerbated by Abe's visit to a controversial war shrine in December that drew strong protests from Seoul and Beijing, which also suffered during Japan's past colonial aggression.

The rift has been viewed with growing alarm in Washington. South Korea and Japan are the two major US military allies in Asia, and key to the US strategic "pivot" to the region.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called for the two nations to mend their relationship during his visit to Seoul in February, urging them to "put history behind and move relations forward".

Earlier this month, Danny Russel, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said Seoul and Tokyo should find a way past the current diplomatic impasse, calling for "prudence and restraint" from both parties.

"The meeting would add a momentum for the two countries to seek ways to smooth their ruffled feathers," said Professor Cho Sei-young, of Dongseo University, in Busan, South Korea. "However, it is too premature to say whether it would lead to a bilateral summit between Park and Abe down the road."

Professor Jo Yang-hyeon, of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said Seoul remained firm in its long-standing position that Japan should address the issue of wartime sex slavery, and stop attempts to gloss over its wartime atrocities and justify its militaristic past. "The tripartite meeting does not mean Seoul eased its stance. This will not automatically lead to a bilateral summit with Japan," Jo said.