The August 15 anniversary of the end of World War II—when the Korean peninsula gained independence from Japanese colonial rule—is not just a time of reflection on the legacy and costs of that war; it is also a perennially sensitive diplomatic moment in Northeast Asia. The festering political disconnect between Park Geun-hye and Shinzo Abe, allies of the United States who have been thus far unable to meet each other bilaterally heightens the importance of such a moment.
Park Geun-hye’s words on the relationship with Japan in her August 15 speech did not break new ground, but they did acknowledge the need to “start making progress toward future-oriented friendly, cooperative relations.” At the same time, she continued to call upon “Japan’s leaders to take a correct view of history and especially to take proactive measures acceptable to the comfort women victims of the Japanese imperial military while they are still alive.” Park anticipates that if this issue is “properly resolved,” South Korea-Japan relations can “progress soundly” in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 establishment of ROK-Japan bilateral ties.
While Park’s statement reiterates her original call for Japan to “take a correct view of history,” it comes against the backdrop of small steps to create a better atmosphere for a stable Japan-South Korea relationship. South Korea has resisted Chinese proposals to jointly commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in ways likely to demonize Japan’s historical role, and Park met in July with Tokyo Mayor Masuzoe at the Blue House during his visit to Seoul. Park’s calls for progress on the comfort women issue are already the main subject of a monthly director-general level dialogue between the two foreign ministries, and both governments have had sufficient time to explore and put forward parameters of a solution to the issue that should enable both governments to move forward. If indeed resolving this issue is South Korea’s only condition for moving forward in the relationship, it seems reasonable that both sides might work out a game plan for returning Japan-South Korea relations to normal.
These developments followed President Obama’s brokering of a trilateral summit last March on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at the Hague. While stating that the United States will not mediate better relations between its two allies, the U.S. interest in a stable ROK-Japan relationship has been made clear through regularization of a wide-range of trilateral meetings in the wake of the Hague summit.
Following President Park’s August 15 speech, ROK foreign minister Yun Byung-se stated on a Sunday talk show two days following the speech that he did not rule out the possibility of a bilateral summit meeting between Park and Abe, although Park has clearly placed the onus on Japan to address the comfort woman issue adequately as a prerequisite for such a meeting. For his part, Prime Minister Abe refrained from visiting Yasukuni shrine on August 15 in a gesture widely reported in the Japanese media as a show of restraint in hopes of renewed summitry with China and/or South Korea in the fall.
Moreover, a stable Japan-South Korea relationship is a prerequisite for South Korea to achieve another major deliverable in Park’s speech: her call for an Asian version of the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) to discuss nuclear safety in Northeast Asia. In the coming months, Park and Abe’s schedules will overlap at the UN General Assembly in New York, at the G-20 in Brisbane, and at APEC in China. Although it remains to be seen whether progress can be made on the comfort women issue, one hopes that both Tokyo and Seoul can find a way to look forward through sincere efforts to come to terms with the past.