Repairing Japan-Korea neighbourly ties

Repairing Japan-Korea neighbourly ties
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

South Korea and Japan have recently been moving to build momentum toward repairing their soured relations, with the possibility growing that President Park Geun-hye and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold their first bilateral summit in the months to come.

In his message delivered by former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Park last Friday, Abe expressed hope that he could meet her on the sidelines of one of this fall's international conferences. Park was quoted by Mori as agreeing to make joint efforts in that direction.

Park and Abe are set to attend the upcoming UN General Assembly this week. They also plan to participate in the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Milan, Italy, in October and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Beijing in November.

In principle, it is necessary for the two leaders to hold bilateral talks as soon as possible to mend Seoul-Tokyo ties, which have plunged to their lowest ebb in decades. It will be in the interest of neither side to continue to leave their relations frozen. Strengthened cooperation between the two neighbouring countries is needed as much as ever to settle the prolonged nuclear standoff with North Korea and handle changes in the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia.

South Korean and Japanese officials have recently taken steps to forge favourable conditions for repairing frayed bilateral ties. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held his first exclusive meeting with the Japanese ambassador here after their joint attendance at a cultural event in Seoul early last week. On the same day Mori called on Park, diplomats from the two sides met in Tokyo for their fourth and latest discussion on the issue of Japan's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.

It may be still too early for Park and Abe to meet separately during their visit to New York this week to attend the UN session. But their foreign ministers need to meet to discuss matters related to a possible summit between the two leaders in the following months.

It is understandable that Park has remained more cautious than Abe on holding the summit. During her meeting with Mori, she reiterated the need for Japan to take sincere efforts to heal the wounds from its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula to ensure the two countries can move forward. In particular, she asked Tokyo to restore the honour of Korean women forced into the wartime sexual slavery.

While increasingly conceding the need to decouple historical issues from security and economic cooperation with Japan, Park still appears concerned about the possibility of her summit with Abe resulting in emboldening the Japanese leader to push his revisionist agenda farther. But she needs to avoid waiting too long for perfect conditions to be forged. For his part, Abe should prove his professed will to improve ties with Seoul by becoming more forward-looking in addressing sensitive bilateral issues.

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