A Japan-South Korea healing moment

An unexpected summit on Monday suggests each country is ready to resolve issues about the past in order to deal with current challenges in Asia together.

Yonhap via AP
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, right, escorts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Nov. 2.

A surprise summit on Nov. 2 between Japan and South Korea opened on the right note. “I hope today’s summit will heal the bitter history in a broad sense ... and be an important opportunity to develop the two countries’ relationship,” South Korean President Park Geun-hye said. Indeed, the fact that Ms. Park met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at all was a welcome curative to their fraught ties. It was their first official bilateral meeting since each came to power a few years ago.

With the ice now broken, it should not be their last.

South Korea and Japan, as close allies of the United States and with each facing a threat in North Korea, should be on good terms. They have far more in common than divides them. But domestic politics in each country and a revival of the issue over Imperial Japan’s use of Korean women in wartime brothels has kept the two Asian economic giants at unnecessary odds.

The summit was a sign that each has made enough concessions to start edging toward reconciliation. Park seems eager to resolve the “comfort women” issue in favor of bigger concerns on trade and security. And Mr. Abe, during the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August, made enough contrite statements about Japan’s colonial past in Asia to lessen concerns over his hints at rewriting history.

Despite the summit’s healing moment, the hard work now begins to come up with a new way to compensate the remaining Korean comfort women, who number about 50. As was tried in the 1990s, private money from Japan can resolve this practical issue. Such “humanitarian assistance” serves a moral purpose, even though legal issues over Japan’s past were settled decades ago. And Abe has now confirmed an official apology made by Japan to the comfort women in 1993.

With Asia in rapid flux, Japan and South Korea must look to the future. China’s economy is slowing even as its military expands. It also plans a summit with Taiwan. A new regional trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is shaping up. And North Korea could again set nerves on edge with a nuclear or missile test.

Under Abe, Japan has stepped up its leadership in Asia by joining the TPP talks and beefing up its military defenses. Park’s cordial welcoming of Abe for this summit shows South Korea may be ready to take on a larger regional role. The US, for one, took heart in their meeting. It needs steady friends in Asia – and for its friends to be friends.

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