Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung Se, made no progress in talks on the so-called comfort women issue Sunday, leaving it unclear whether a summit meeting between the two nations' leaders will take place this year, which marks the 50th year since diplomatic ties were normalised.
Although the South Korean side appears eager to reach a resolution, the Japanese government is showing no signs of backing down from its stance that the matter has already been settled.
Treading delicate path
"We had a friendly, frank and constructive discussion on issues of mutual concern," Yun was quoted by the Yonhap News Agency as saying at a Tokyo hotel.
The trip was Yun's first to Japan since he was appointed in 2013.
Even among South Korean President Park Geun-hye's administration, Yun's positions toward Japan have stood out due to their rigidness.
During his time as a bureaucrat at the then South Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry, Yun led a team that negotiated with Japan over fishing rights around the Takeshima islands in Shimane Prefecture. Heavily criticised in the South Korean National Assembly for granting concessions in the talks, he was even accused of "selling off the islands." That painful experience left Yun traumatized, according to a source with ties to the Japanese government.
Yun's abruptly scheduled trip was the result of domestic pressure on the South Korean government to improve relations with Japan.
Amid China's overt attempts to cosy up to South Korea, the Park administration has struggled to achieve the right balance with the United States.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 22 and his successful visit to the United States, the sentiment has been spreading in South Korea that the country is becoming diplomatically isolated.
Desire to see the matter resolved has also grown.
Several former comfort women have died this year. In May, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the South Korean government to hold talks directly with Japan to find a solution to issues over historical perceptions that is acceptable to both sides.
All of this has reportedly created an anxious atmosphere within the South Korean government.
Sources with ties to Seoul said officials have shown understanding of Japan's refusal to accept legal or national responsibility during talks on the issue and are calling for new proposals.
The South Korean side has reportedly stated in prior consultations that if a solution is reached, it will promise not to demand further action from Japan, according to diplomatic sources from both countries.
Park told The Washington Post in a June 11 interview, "There has been considerable progress on the comfort women issue, and we are in the final stage of our negotiations."
A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official called this an expression of South Korea's willingness to settle the matter, despite the fact that the future of the negotiations remains as unclear as ever.
The diplomatic sources said Japan demanded the removal of the statue of a young girl symbolizing the comfort women from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The South Korean side responded by saying it would be difficult, given the current climate.
Even if an agreement is reached, further obstacles are likely to emerge.
Opposition can be expected from the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. The organisation, which supports former comfort women, has demanded recognition of war crimes and legal compensation.
"When [the Park administration] sees the opposition of the council and other groups as negotiable, it will finally decide to settle the issue," a high-ranking South Korean official said.
But the administration's approval ratings have been low for some time, meaning there is no guarantee the president will be able to win over the South Korean public.
Distrust of South Korea
While the South Korean government has stepped up efforts to resolve the comfort women issue, Kishida continues to emphasise Japan's stance that a legal settlement has already been made with Seoul.
Meanwhile, there is a growing insistence within the Japanese government that, as a senior government official says, "The resolution over the comfort women should not be made a precondition for the improvement of bilateral relations."
On Sunday afternoon, shortly before the meeting between Kishida and Yun, Abe invited Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki and Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama to his personal residence and gave them instructions on how to handle the meeting.
When the two governments decided to hold the foreign ministers meeting Wednesday, Sugiyama was hastily dispatched to Seoul. As Park told a US paper that Japan and South Korea had made considerable progress over the comfort women, which boosted expectations in South Korea, Abe reportedly had Sugiyama tell Seoul that there was no change in the Japanese government's stance on the matter.
While Japan and South Korea have held eight foreign ministry director-general level talks since April 2014, the Japanese government has maintained its stance that the comfort women issue was legally settled completely and finally by the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea.
Within the Japanese government, there is an opinion that "If we can confirm that South Korea will put a complete end to the issue of comfort women, there is room to think about taking additional measures such as financial support for former comfort women," a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
However, the Japanese side has a strong sense of distrust toward South Korea.
Past Japanese prime ministers repeatedly made apologies, and the Japanese government provided reparations for former comfort women through the Asian Women's Fund established in 1995. Despite these and other measures, the issue has been repeatedly brought up in South Korea.
Concerning Park's statement on "progress," the official at the Foreign Ministry said, "The statement might be a part of a propaganda war anticipating that there would be no progress in the negotiations."
However, South Korea suddenly reversed its previous opposition to Japan's bid for "Sites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution" to be listed as a World Heritage site, saying it would co-operate.
Continued opposition by South Korea to the bid would have worsened the rift between the two countries, so the Japanese government believes that Seoul has softened its attitude toward Japan. Japan plans to work with South Korea to realise a summit meeting between the two countries' leaders while watching the country's attitude on the issue of comfort women.