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Editorial: Abe-Moon meet chance for fresh start to stabilize bilateral ties

  • February 10, 2018
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:00 p.m.
  • English Press

The Feb. 9 meeting between the leaders of Japan and South Korea should be a first step toward regular mutual visits aimed at putting strained bilateral relationship on a better footing.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in South Korea in time to attend the Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. He met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in prior to the event.

It was Abe’s first visit since Moon took office last May. Their meeting was widely viewed as signaling a resumption of mutual visits by the leaders of the two Asian powers, thereby reviving a diplomatic arrangement that had remained in limbo for six years.

This approach to bilateral summit diplomacy, initiated by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, is based on the notion that the leaders of the two countries should hold talks frequently even if there are disagreements between them, as they share a wide range of common interests.

At the outset of the meeting, Moon expressed his wish to revive this form of bilateral summitry, saying he wants to “enhance communications” between the two neighbors.

We hope they make steady progress toward that end.

It is now Moon’s turn to reciprocate. It has been expected for some time that Moon will pay his first visit to Japan as South Korea’s president for a trilateral meeting involving China that was tentatively scheduled for early as April.

But the outlook for the gathering has been muddied by factors concerning China.

That being the case, Tokyo and Seoul should consider Moon’s trip to Japan as an extension of their bilateral exchanges.

This would be an opportunity to ensure that the leaders of the two nations meet regularly and hold casual and candid talks. It must not be wasted.

In his meeting with Moon in Pyeongchang, Abe referred to local exchanges between Shimonoseki, a city in Yamaguchi Prefecture that is part of his electoral district, and the South Korean city of Busan. He called for mutual efforts to build a “future-oriented” bilateral relationship.

The two leaders should learn from the exchanges between the two cities and build close personal ties through a frank exchange of views.

Reciprocal visits by the leaders of the two countries stopped six years ago because of a diplomatic row over the “comfort women” issue.

This topic featured in the Feb. 9 talks between Abe and Moon. As expected, they were at odds in their views on the contentious issue.

The Japanese and South Korean governments reached a landmark political agreement on the comfort women issue in December 2015.

The latest hiccup in the matter occurred last month when the Moon administration said there were serious flaws with the process of bilateral negotiations that led to the pact. Moon urged Japan to voluntarily offer a fresh apology, but denied any intention to seek a renegotiation of the accord.

This is a badly twisted argument that inevitably raises serious doubt about the Moon administration’s commitment to the agreement.

The South Korean government should steadily carry out programs to heal the wounds of former comfort women, who were forced to provide sex to wartime Japanese soldiers, through the fund that has been set up under the agreement.

Abe has flatly rejected Seoul’s call, repeatedly saying that he has no intention to “move the agreement, not even by one millimeter.”

The agreement has committed the two governments to work together on comfort women programs. It was inappropriate of Abe to come across as slamming the door on his neighbor. By snubbing the Moon administration, Abe is only compounding a sticky and complicated diplomatic challenge.

Unsurprisingly, the two leaders spent much of their time discussing tensions over North Korea’s weapons programs.

The regime in Pyongyang headed by Kim Jong Un has seized the window of opportunity opened by the Olympics to stage a diplomatic campaign for reconciliation between the two Koreas.

Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive is testing the unity between South Korea and the Japan-the U.S. alliance.

The situation requires Japan and South Korea to keep their perspective and remain fully aware of the importance and benefits of their cooperation in a broad array of areas, including security and economic and environmental issues, irrespective of any bitter disagreements over history related issues.

–The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 10

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