Signs of thaw as Obama brings South Korea, Japan to the table

President Park and Prime Minister Abe met in The Hague with President Obama, who seeks a unified front in dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Sensitive historical issues were sidestepped.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US President Barack Obama holds a trilateral meeting with President Park Geun-hye of the South Korea (l.) and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan (r.) after the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, March 25.

At times, Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye bring to mind a couple whose marriage has hit the rocks.

The leaders of Japan and South Korea appeared unwilling to reconcile their differences, preferring to withdraw into an uncomfortable silence that has lasted for more than a year. The schism led many observers to wonder when, or if, either party would ever swallow its pride.
 
In the end, it took an intervention by a mutual friend, Barack Obama, to break the deadlock. On Tuesday, Mr. Abe and Ms. Park's 15-month estrangement ended when they met, along with the US president, on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague. The trilateral summit was the first face-to-face official talks between Japanese and South Korean leaders for almost two years.

The row over territory and history between two conservative, hereditary politicians with a shared nemesis in the form of a nuclear-armed North Korea has caused growing anxiety in the United States, just as Washington attempts to re-pivot its defense policy toward the Asia-Pacific in response to Pyongyang's development of weapons of mass destruction and Chinese naval aggression.

"Despite defense budget cuts, the US is trying to develop a new policy in Asia," says Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. "So it wants its allies, Japan and South Korea, to be big supporters of that, and to 'blend' so that the relationship between Washington and its allies isn't just bilateral, but more blended and networked."

'Shared concern'

At the meeting, the three leaders spoke with one voice about the need to coordinate on how to address North Korea's nuclear weapons program. 

Obama, who sat with Park to his right and Abe to his left, stated that the US, Japan, and South Korea were united by "our shared concern about North Korea and its nuclear program." 

Park urged North Korea to change course on its nuclear program, stating that "should North Korea embark on a path toward denuclearization on the basis of sincerity, then there will be away forward to address the difficulties confronting the North Korean people."

Abe, for his part, affirmed the need for the three countries to cooperate on North Korea. He also said that he was "so very happy to be able to see" Park, and anticipated a "future oriented relationship" with South Korea.

But according to official statements, the meeting was not to touch on any of the sensitive issues that have soured Abe and Park's relationship since they took office in December 2012 and February last year, respectively.

Abe prompted anger in Seoul – and a rare public show of irritation in Washington – at the end of last year with a visit to Yasukuni, a controversial shrine in Tokyo that honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 class A war criminals.
 
Earlier this year, Abe threatened to reopen another historical wound when he announced plans to re-examine an official apology to women, mostly from the Korean peninsula, who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
 
The countries are also involved in a long-running dispute over a group of islets in the Japan Sea – known by Japanese as Takeshima and Koreans as Dokdo – that are administered by Seoul but claimed by Tokyo.
 
Mr. Obama's visit to Tokyo and Seoul next month lent greater urgency to the need to lift Abe and Park's relationship out of the deep freeze.
 
US attempts to end the deadlock reportedly included a phone call from Obama to Abe earlier this month in which the US president stressed the need for Japan and South Korea to cooperate on regional security. That message was reinforced during a subsequent lunch that the US ambassador to Tokyo, Caroline Kennedy, held for Abe.
 
"South Korea was reluctant to agree to the talks until the very last minute, but relented under US pressure," says Tetsuo Kotani, a fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. "Japan was always willing to meet, so South Korea didn't want to look like it was the main obstacle to talks."

Reconciliation ahead of visit

"The talks in The Hague are connected to Obama's visit to Japan and South Korea in April. He wanted some movement toward reconciliation before he visited both countries, and failure to bring the leaders together would have meant the continuation of an abnormal situation and called into question US leadership and its ability to influence its closest allies in the region.”
 
For now, Abe appears willing to resist pressure from right-wingers in his Liberal Democratic Party, whose support helped him secure the party leadership in 2012, and instead accommodate US desire for better ties between its two main allies in the region. 
 
The chances that today's talks will bring about a sea change in relations between Japan and South Korea are slim, however, says Mr. Kim at the foreign affairs institute in Seoul.
 
"It all depends upon Abe's behavior," he says. "Park is very principled and stubborn, so if Japan wants her to shift her thinking, it needs to do something substantial. There won't be any change in their relationship unless Park witnesses significant changes in Abe's attitude."
 
An opportunity to put Japan-South Korea ties on a firmer footing could come next year, when the countries mark the 50th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic ties.
 
"In around the summer of this year [Abe and Park] are both going to have to think about what their countries' relationship really means, because this is an important anniversary," says Mr. Izumi at Shizuoka University.

"I don't know how that will happen, exactly, but at the very least they need to create a better mood and escape from the stalemate over historical issues." 

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