Japan, South Korea diplomats to meet over ‘issues of mutual interest’

Summit to discuss relations between Seoul and Tokyo will focus on wartime compensation, comfort women, trade and the mutual threat posed by North Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 1:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 May, 2014, 1:34pm

Senior officials from Japan and South Korea will meet in Tokyo on Thursday in a bid to smooth over a badly ruffled relationship.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a regular press conference on Tuesday that the officials would address “issues of mutual interest”.

They will probably include lawsuits in South Korea demanding compensation from Japanese companies for wartime conscripted labour and Seoul’s restrictions on importing Japanese marine products after the Fukushima nuclear accident, Kishida said.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said the talks would focus on the sexual slavery practised by Imperial Japan in the middle of the last century, the country’s Yonhap news agency reported.

The meeting will take place between Junichi Ihara, head of the Asian and Oceanian affairs bureau at the Japanese foreign ministry, and Lee Sang-deok, South Korea’s director-general for Northeast Asian Affairs.

“By ensuring communication at the bureau-chief level, we want to build up relations of mutual confidence and bring it to dialogue at a high political level,” Kishida said.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been rebuffed in his attempts to arrange a two-way summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who insists Japan must atone for its wartime wrongs, particularly its use of so-called “comfort women”.

Seoul is also angered by Abe’s December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol in Asia for what is seen as Japan’s distorted view of history.

President Barack Obama pressured the two leaders – key allies of the United States – to hold their first direct meeting in March on the sidelines of an international gathering in the Netherlands.

Their narrowly focused agenda – on North Korea – did not disguise the evident tension between Abe and Park during photo shoots of the three.

Relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest level in years, strained by Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea and a territorial dispute over islets in waters between the two countries.

Wartime forced labour and the inflammatory subject of “comfort women” are both sources of Korean resentment.

Japan insists issues around reparation for individuals and their right to demand state compensation were fully settled when the two countries normalised ties in 1965.

The 1965 treaty included a reparations package of about US$800 million in grants and cheap loans – an very high amount at the time.

The Japanese government has also issued numerous apologies for its wartime wrongs, but these are regularly undermined in Korean eyes by apparent backtracking by a minority of right wing politicians, including Abe.

The upcoming talks between senior officials are the second of their kind, and follow a meeting in Seoul in April designed to discuss the comfort women.

Briefing domestic reporters after the first talks, a South Korean official would only reveal that both sides had laid out their respective stances and agreed to meet again soon.