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Analysis of background to Japan-ROK summit

  • 2015-11-04 15:00:00
  • , Mainichi
  • Translation

(Mainichi: November 4, 2015 – pp. 1, 3)

 

 By Hiroshi Odanaka; Tomoko Onuki in Seoul; Hiroaki Wada in Washington

 

 We looked at the inside story behind the first Japan-ROK summit in three years and six months. Summits were suspended due to worsening bilateral relations as a result of former President Lee Myung-bak’s landing on Takeshima in Shimane Prefecture, the comfort women issue, and other complications.

 

 At around noon on Dec. 29, 2014, Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki was at the ROK foreign ministry in Seoul. He cited the ruling parties’ landslide victory in the recent Japanese House of Representatives election and asked ROK First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong: “The Shinzo Abe administration won the general election, so it is guaranteed to stay in power for four more years. The Park Geun-hye administration has three more years left. If you continue to be stubborn, the Japan-ROK relationship will stagnate for another three years. Is that acceptable to you?”

 

 It was almost 2015, which marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations. The meeting was requested by Japan in an attempt to find a way to resolve the situation where the comfort women issue and other history-related problems were marring bilateral ties and the two leaders could not even hold summit meetings.

 

 Since early morning on that day, citizens’ groups holding placards to protest against Japan on the history issues were blocking the ROK foreign ministry in their attempt to prevent Saiki from entering the premises. Saiki had to head back to the Japanese Embassy after he was prevented from going inside, resulting in a substantial delay in the meeting. After the meeting, Saiki would only say: “We made an assessment of the Japan-ROK relationship in the past year,” but in reality, he kept stating assertively at the meeting that “the ball is now in South Korea’s court” because he was confident that “the ROK is softening its stance.”

 

 An indication of change had been observed a month earlier on the evening of Nov. 10 (Japan time), when a dinner reception was held for leaders attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. It is customary for the leaders to sit in alphabetical order. Japan begins with J and Korea with K, so Abe and Park sat beside each other and talked amicably during the dinner. A Japanese Foreign Ministry source recalls that “President Park accepted being seated beside the Prime Minister without fuss.” “In the past, the ROK used to resist sitting beside Japan, asserting that the Republic of Korea begins with a R.”

 

 Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping had had their first summit meeting at noon on that day (afternoon of Nov. 10 in Japan). Japan’s basic strategy that “if things go well with China, the ROK will also follow suit” was beginning to bear fruit.

 

 According to a Japan-ROK diplomatic source, the two countries were in agreement that the recent bilateral summit “must not be a repeat of the Kyoto meeting.”

 

 In December 2011, then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and President Lee Myung-bak met in Kyoto. They had a heated exchange on the comfort women issue, resulting in the deterioration of bilateral relations. A source at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence (Kantei) recalls that, “Hard feelings from that meeting led to Lee’s Takeshima landing.”

 

 The Abe administration persisted in adopting a “patient” approach to the negative legacy left by the Democratic Party of Japan administration, maintaining that Japan “need not be the one to request a summit meeting.” It worked for improvement of Japan-China relations that was also meant to influence the ROK, which was keen on moving closer to China. A Japan-China summit was held in November 2014. A government source revealed that “the ROK side was unsettled, so the mood began to favor improving ties with Japan.”

 

 Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) Chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara visited South Korea in December, where he attended a regular meeting of the Federation of Korean Industries. The business leaders issued a joint statement urging the early realization of a bilateral summit, which was an indication of rising calls in the business sector for a summit.

 

 The joint press release issued after the Japan-China-ROK foreign ministerial in Seoul last March included a passage on “continuing efforts to hold a trilateral summit at the earliest convenient time for the three countries.” “At that point, holding the trilateral summit this year became certain,” according to a senior Japanese government official. Since the ROK was the designated trilateral summit host, the meeting was to be held in Seoul. A Japan-ROK summit was also planned.

 

 However, the clash between the two countries over “forced labor” in connection with Japan’s registration of the “Sites of Meiji Industrial Revolution” as World Cultural Heritage came as an unexpected glitch. Japan’s resentment of South Korea at that time lingered on for some time.

 

 Proposals to expand a follow-up project for the Asian Women’s Fund or a letter from Abe to the former comfort women were discussed at working level talks preceding the recent bilateral summit. Japan demanded the removal of the statue of a young girl symbolizing the comfort women issue erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and a final settlement of this issue, but no agreement was reached.

 

 Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga indicated a negative view when former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura came to the Kantei to ask for the expansion of the follow-up program on Oct. 23. Suga remarked that, “They overturned the World Cultural Heritage issue, so we can’t trust them.”

 

 U.S. State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Trudeau welcomed the agreement between Abe and Park to seek an early conclusion to the comfort women issue at her regular news conference. However, she made it a point to also tell reporters to “go ask the Japanese and ROK governments for details.” The Obama administration had been working actively to prod its allies Japan and the ROK to improve relations in light of the ROK’s increasingly China-leaning posture. Trudeau’s reaction was a realistic one since there is no guarantee that the two countries will arrive at a final settlement.

 

 President Barack Obama managed to arrange for a Japan-U.S.-ROK on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in The Hague, Netherlands, in March 2014 based on his belief that “Japan-ROK conflict limits U.S. policy options in Northeast Asia.” (U.S. Congressional Research Service report) The U.S. has strong expectations for Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issue and to make its strategy of rebalancing to Asia-Pacific in response to China’s rise more effective. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel had stated that “improvement of [Japan-ROK] relations is a top foreign policy priority for the U.S.” Yet, improvement in Japan-ROK ties was not moving forward and U.S. experts were becoming “weary” of the ROK’s stubbornness, in particular.

 

 When attending the opening ceremony of the Summer Universiades in Gwangju in the south of the ROK with a group of foreign diplomats on July 3, U.S. Ambassador to the ROK Mark Lippert could not help raising his voice when he said: “I’m sick and tired of listening to disagreements.” This was his reaction to the heated Japan-ROK dispute over Japan’s bid to register the “Sites of Meiji Industrial Revolution” as World Cultural Heritage.

 

 Obama hosted Park at the White House on Oct. 16 for a summit meeting. He stated later at a news conference held after the meeting: “We hope that the U.S. and the ROK’s interactions with Japan will help resolve some of the historical challenges,” indicating his strong hopes for improvement in the situation in Northeast Asia. He also supported Park’s hosting the Japan-China-ROK summit and the Japan-ROK summit in Seoul.

 

 With intensifying conflict between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea, it is the Obama administration’s fervent wish that Japan and the ROK will overcome their differences over history issues at an early date and “focus on the future” (National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Daniel Kritenbrink).

 

 Since China’s consent to hold a Japan-China-ROK summit was obtained at the China-ROK summit on Sept. 2, officials of the ROK presidential office and foreign ministry had been pressuring Japanese officials, telling them: “It is President Park Geun-hye’s wish to put an end to the comfort women issue this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and the ROK.”

 

 The ROK government had agreed to hold a Japan-ROK summit on the sidelines of the trilateral summit, but this would have to produce some tangible results. Above all, the Park administration had long set a solution to the comfort women issue as the condition for holding a bilateral summit. In a written interview with Mainichi Shimbun in October, Park talked about “reaching an agreement within this year,” mentioning a timeframe for the first time.

 

 Eight former comfort women have died this year and the average age of the survivors is nearly 90 years old. A general election will be held in South Korea in spring 2016 and normally, the president becomes a lame duck after that. It appears that the Park administration had determined that a political decision would have to be made this year.

 

 After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the U.S. in April, experts and members of the media had begun to argue for improvement of Japan-ROK relations. At a meeting in the Blue House on May 4, Park brought up a “two-track” strategy of separating history issues from security and other matters for the first time. A participant in this meeting explained that “this means that she will now work for improving ROK-Japan relations.”

 

 On Aug. 3, ROK Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, a hardliner in policy toward Japan, greeted Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada with “konnichiwa” in Japanese as he welcomed him in a reception room on the 17th floor of the foreign ministry in central Seoul.

 

 Abe issued his statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 14, but Park was restrained in her criticism of Japan in a speech she delivered on the next day. The ROK government had been sounding out Japan and China on holding a trilateral summit in October even before the Abe Statement was issued. It had made up its mind on mending ties with Japan.

 

 However, no common ground was found on the comfort women issue. A ROK government source revealed that the expression “reaching an early agreement” used at the Japan-ROK summit had not been coordinated in advance.

 

 According to an expert close to the ROK government, there is now a proposal to defer the issue of compensation for the comfort women — an issue Japan maintains to have been settled by the 1965 bilateral agreement on claims — and give priority to an apology and fact finding, in order to achieve some progress in this issue. On the other hand, it appears that government officials have already started studying the possible scenarios if no agreement is reached.

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