So frosty have been relations between the Japanese and South Koreans that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was more unpopular than even dictator Kim Jong Un in a recent global leaders survey of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. Provocatively, the North Korean leader launched two ballistic missiles as Mr Abe held talks for the first time with South Korean President Park Geun Hye last week, under the auspices of United States President Barack Obama. The missiles might have helped minds to focus on security threats in the region that call for a coordinated approach by the North-east Asian nations and their strategic allies. But it might take more than the common threat from Pyongyang to dramatically alter the political freeze between the two.
The complexity of rebuilding ties is not to be underestimated as a mix of war bitterness, trade, cultural exchange and bilateral contact has characterised relations for some 1,500 years. Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945, often with a harsh hand, and in World War II, the Japanese Red Army forced Korean women into sexual slavery. The wounds of history continue to fester today as a 1919 uprising by Koreans is marked by a national holiday and Korean outrage flares up when Japanese nationalists talk about revising the Kono Statement, a landmark Japanese apology for wartime sexual exploitation. Alongside these, flourishing trade has made South Korea the fourth largest trading partner for Japan, and K-pop once made a big impact in Japan, with TV series like Winter Sonata and artists like BoA gaining millions of Japanese fans.
Hence, American efforts to draw the two together are pregnant with promise and peril. But whatever ties that are rekindled by fresh effort can be set back if Mr Abe gives in to his nationalist urges that have made him a target of Korean resentment. These include denials of history, visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where war criminals and others are honoured, and a hawkish stance on the territorial dispute over the Takeshima-Dokdo group of islets in the Sea of Japan-East Sea.
There is much to be gained from rapprochement. The US-Japan-South Korea alliance can offer a credible security architecture to counter North Korea's nuclear threat and to counterbalance a China-Russia axis. For that triangle to be more stable, it must encompass what Seoul once referred to as "shared political, economic, and cultural values". A good starting point is any rapport that is built between the North-east Asian leaders at a possible bilateral summit mentioned by Mr Abe last week. He spoke of establishing "future-oriented ties". That effort should not fall victim to historically oriented politics.
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