Park Geun-hye
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South Korean president unimpressed by Japanese PM's attempt to speak Korean

Tokyo hailed the first meeting between Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye, while Seoul offered a cooler response


Watch: Obama hosts landmark Japan, S.Korea summit

Tokyo yesterday hailed the first summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a chance for the leaders to build a rapport, although Seoul offered a cooler response.

The talks in The Hague were hosted by US President Barack Obama, whose administration has become increasingly frustrated by incessant sniping between its two major Asian allies at a time of increased tension in the region.

"It seemed that [Park] did not have a good impression of the prime minister, so I think she was able to get a glimpse of his real personality," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo.

It seemed that [Park] did not have a good impression of the prime minister

South Korean media said Park appeared unimpressed by Abe's attempts to speak Korean during a photo opportunity before the meeting, reporting that her reply was to stare ahead, "stony-faced".

Seoul's presidential office also offered a very dry assessment of the three-way summit, saying that it "provided an opportunity for the three nations to share a consensus about North Korea's nuclear threat".

The gathering, held on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, was followed within hours by Pyongyang's test firing of two missiles.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their worst in years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonial rule, particularly Japan's use of South Korean "comfort women" as sex slaves in wartime brothels.

Although not a one-on-one encounter, the talks are a significant step forward and mark a departure from Park's oft-repeated stance that there could be no summit with Abe until Tokyo demonstrates sincere repentance for "past wrongdoings".

Shinzo Abe meets Park Geun-hye
Despite not being known for his skill with languages, Abe gamely kicked off the greeting in Korean, saying: "President Park, it's nice to meet you".

Suga side-stepped a question about Park's apparently bloodless response, saying he did not know how she reacted immediately, "but finally they shook hands, that was good", he said.

"Japan and South Korea both value freedom and democracy and are important neighbours ... It's extremely important for both countries and for the security of East Asia as a whole that we establish a future-oriented relationship," he added.

Ties frayed in 2012 with a dispute over ownership of two sparsely inhabited islets in the Japan Sea, which Koreans call the East Sea, and went downhill with the hawkish Abe's election.

Surveys in South Korea show that the Abe even more unpopular than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Eom Sang-yoon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul, said the meeting - under US pressure - was a step towards slightly warmer ties, but only a small one.

"Co-operation is possible between Seoul and Tokyo on North Korea, but there will be no breakthrough in their strained relations without a dramatic change in Abe's attitude," he said. "There is a long way to go before we see a bilateral summit between Park and Abe."

Narushige Michishita, associate professor at the National Graduate Institute For Policy Studies, said Park was tough on Japan "because she has to distance herself from her pro-Japanese father to avoid attacks from the opposition".

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Seoul unmoved by Abe overture