Korea-Japan relations hang by a hair

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is walking a tightrope as he continues to play down the country's historical abuses ahead of his address at US Congress and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, stymying Seoul's efforts to defrost bilateral ties.

He has been under growing international pressure to tone down his revisionist views and present a more repentant attitude to Japan's wartime history. But skepticism persists over any sweeping turnaround in his approach in light of his elusive remarks on sensitive historical issues, namely Tokyo's sexual enslavement of Korean and other Asian women during the war.

In an interview last week with the Washington Post, the premier displayed sympathy and claimed to uphold the positions of his predecessors, some of whom offered apologies to the sex slavery victims, saying many women's human rights were violated under conflict and pledging efforts to prevent it in the 21st century.

Nonetheless, he once again attempted to whitewash the forced nature of the recruitment system by describing the so-called comfort women as victims of "human trafficking."

Though trafficking indicates the involvement of some form of coercion, Abe's comments are primarily in line with the Japanese right-wing denial of its government's immediate participation, and the assertion that the women involved were rounded up by their own family or private contractors. He also failed to identify the traffickers and purpose of sexual servitude.

Such attempts frustrate South Korea, which is seeking a long-overdue reconciliation with the old foe following years of spats and tit-for-tat diplomatic actions. With the sex slavery issue being a must for a bilateral thaw, Seoul is taking a detour: trilateral co-operation including Beijing.

The three countries held their first foreign ministers' meeting in three years last week in Seoul and agreed to arrange a three-way summit "at the earliest possible date."

President Park Geun-hye had a brief encounter with Abe on the margins of the funeral for the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the island country Sunday, during which the two leaders concurred on the need for follow-up measures for the trilateral talks.

"As we created rare, crucial momentum through the tripartite ministerial meeting, we should bring the summit to pass," South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at a conference of chiefs of missions Monday, quoting the proverb, "strike while the iron is hot."

The upcoming speeches appear to have little chance of bringing about a significant change in Abe's management of Japan's history or Tokyo's sudden concessions in its drawn-out sex slavery negotiations with Seoul.

Given international criticism about his revisionist push, however, Abe may be compelled to express a more forward-looking position toward wartime atrocities in Washington and the anniversary statement, some observers say. Another potential burden is the fact that he will be the first Japanese premier in history to address a joint session of the US Congress.

In 2006, then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pursued a congressional speech, but it did not materialize amid stiff resistance by some senior lawmakers over his historical perception and record of visiting the controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

Domestic interests could also hold sway. A telephone survey conducted in Japan by Kyodo News over the weekend showed that 54.6 per cent of the respondents said Abe should express regret and apologise for the country's colonial rule and aggression when it celebrates the anniversary in August, whereas 30.5 per cent opposed.

"Despite Abe's deep conservative belief and hawkish character, he could be realistic in terms of dealing with historical issues, taking every internal and external factor into account when delivering the addresses. The level of the messages may not meet our expectations, but it could facilitate a compromise on the sex slavery issue later on," a Seoul official said on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the matter.