President Park Geun-hye on Saturday welcomed Japan’s announcement to uphold past apologies for its imperial-era wrongdoings, raising cautious optimism for a thaw in the bilateral ties frayed by historical and territorial feuds.
The announcement raised prospects of the first summit between Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the Nuclear Security Summit to be held in the Netherlands later this month.
But skepticism lingers as the two sides remain poles apart over a set of long-festering thorny issues including Tokyo’s claim to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo.
“It is fortunate that Prime Minister Abe announced that his government would inherit the Murayama and Kono Statements,” Park was quoted as saying by her spokesperson Min Kyung-wook.
“I hope that (the announcement) would become an opportunity to relieve the pains of the elderly victims of sexual slavery and to enhance relations between South Korea and Japan.”
The Abe government had angered South Korea and China, two major victims of Japan’s past militarism, by showing its desire to revise the two landmark statements.
In the 1995 Murayama Statement, former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama officially apologized for his country’s colonial occupation of Asian states including Korea.
In the 1993 Kono Statement, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono apologized to the victims of sexual slavery, called “comfort women,” and admitted responsibility for their suffering. Historians put the number of victims at around 200,000.
Last month, Tokyo revealed its plan to “re-verify” the testimonies of 16 Korean sex slavery victims, which were used as the basis for the Kono Statement.
But amid the escalating international criticism, Abe said last Friday that his Cabinet was not considering revising the apologetic statements. But he added that Tokyo would reexamine it anyway.
“Along with these statements, the Abe government inherits the stances of past governments concerning historical perceptions,” he said during a session of the parliamentary budget committee.
Abe has repeatedly offered to hold summit talks with Park over the past year. But Park has remained reluctant as she thinks Tokyo is not sincere enough to improve ties with Seoul.
Anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea was one of the reasons why Park thinks it is not the proper time to hold the summit. Public opinion here has been inflamed by Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December and his administration’s lack of contrition for its past militarism and stepped-up claim to Dokdo.
Abe is expected to seek talks with Park when they gather at the Nuclear Security Summit to be held in the Hague from March 24-25. But Seoul officials think that there is not sufficient time left to prepare for a summit on the sidelines of the premier forum.
Some observers argue that Washington may strive to encourage its two Asian allies to hold the summit and seek ways to put aside history and pursue a future-oriented relationship.