Restoring the now completely chilled relations between Japan and South Korea is not an easy task, but recent talks between senior officials of both governments should be used as the first step toward restructuring a future-oriented bilateral relationship.
Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, met with Lee Sang Deuk, director general of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau, in Seoul on Wednesday to discuss the so-called comfort women issue.
"We could exchange opinions sincerely, so it was a significant meeting," Ihara said afterward, but the two countries remain far apart in their assertions on the issue.
South Korea has called for Japan to make "sincere" responses, such as recognition of its legal responsibilities and compensation by the Japanese government. The Japanese government's position is that the comfort women issue is already resolved, meaning it is not obliged by any international law to comply with any request for state compensation over the matter.
The bilateral agreement of 1965 states that issues involving compensation claims, including those by individuals, "have been completely and finally resolved." Despite that, Japan established the Asian Women's Fund in 1995 to make compensation payments and provide medical and welfare assistance as humanitarian measures for former comfort women. A letter of apology by the Japanese prime minister was also delivered.
Such measures did not seem to be fully appreciated by those in South Korea, who strongly opposed the fund's provision of "compensation money"-based on a perceived distinction from state compensation-and maintained their stance of pursuing recognition of what they regard as Japan's legal responsibility.
New steps difficult
South Korean President Park Geun-hye's adamantly anti-Japan stance has aggravated national sentiments in the two countries, and in view of that fact, it is politically difficult for Tokyo to take new measures toward resolving the comfort women issue.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary lack of summit meetings between Park and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues.
The US government's earnest efforts as an intermediary to improve Tokyo-Seoul relations were presumably made because Washington considered it necessary to restructure the tripartite relationship amid the continued military provocations by North Korea and China's military buildup.
It is likely that both Japan and South Korea's willingness to participate in the recent meeting at the director general level was intended to portray a mutual openness to dialogue ahead of US President Barack Obama's tour of the two countries next week.
Even so, the meeting must be used as an opportunity to repair bilateral relations.
The next round of talks is scheduled for May in Tokyo. Matters other than the comfort women are also likely to be discussed. Many issues have been left pending between Japan and South Korea, including lawsuits related to payment of compensation and unpaid wages filed by Koreans who were conscripted to work in Japanese factories during wartime. The two countries must make strenuous efforts to find a workable compromise as they continue to discuss the various issues involved.
Next year's 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations and 70th anniversary of the end of World War II are highly likely to bring renewed attention to historical issues.
Achieving a summit meeting between Japanese and South Korean leaders is necessary-by arranging the schedule to coincide with international conferences, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting scheduled for this autumn. Greater efforts must be made by both countries in this regard.