Abe, Park Take Steps to Ease Tensions on Anniversary of Ties

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South Korean protesters stand next to a statue of a diminutive Korean girl outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

The leaders of Japan and South Korea used the 50th anniversary of normalized relations to take tentative first steps toward thawing a diplomatic freeze between the two U.S. allies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye called on Monday for an improvement in ties over the next half-century. Abe attended a commemoration ceremony in Tokyo, and Park will attend a similar event in Seoul, which coincides with the first visit to Japan by Park’s foreign minister since she came to power in 2013.

“It is our duty owed to the next generation to make the 50th year of normalized ties a turning point for moving forward toward a new future of cooperation and co-prosperity.” Park said in her message to the Tokyo ceremony, according to her office. “For this it’s important to try through the spirit of reconciliation and co-existence to lay down the heavy burden of history which is the biggest barrier.”

Any improvement in relations would be welcomed by the U.S., which wants its allies to help contain a nuclear-armed North Korea and respond collectively to China’s rise. Many of their disagreements have centered on whether Japan has taken adequate responsibility for the thousands of women forced into sexual servitude during the country’s 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se, who met with Abe Monday, told reporters that a summit between the leaders could happen if conditions “ripen,” and dealing with the sex-slave issue through a spirit of trust and compromise would help.

‘Left Behind’

“South Korea is taking a clear turn in direction on Japan,” said Park Cheol Hee, director of the Institute for Japanese Studies at Seoul National University. “South Korea has also reached a judgment it can’t be left behind at a time China and Japan are starting to improve relations.”

Abe has moved to overcome similar historical animosities with China, and has now held two meetings with President Xi Jinping. Soon after talks with Xi in Indonesia in April, Abe traveled to the U.S. and became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint-session of Congress. He was hosted at a state dinner by Obama.

Park was offered a more low-key meeting with Obama this month, amid signs the administration is tiring of the war issue dividing its allies. In February, senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman said the historical disputes were “frustrating” and vilification of former enemies “produces paralysis, not progress.” Park had to postpone her U.S. trip due to an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in South Korea.

Territorial Dispute

Efforts to bolster intelligence and logistics coordination between the two countries -- both within range of North Korean missiles -- have been on hold since 2012. A territorial spat over a set of islets claimed by both countries has also fueled tensions.

“We share many strategic interests,” Abe said in Tokyo. “If you look at the state of Northeast Asia, strengthening cooperation between Japan and South Korea, and between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, is necessary not only for the peace and stability of our two countries, but the Asia-Pacific region.”

They have an economic imperative to improve ties because tensions have hurt trade between the nations that both rank as each others’ third-biggest trading partner. Bilateral commerce fell to $87 billion last year from $108 billion in 2011.

Two-Track Approach

Yun said the South Korean government would maintain a “two-track policy” of seeking better ties. His visit to Tokyo followed a meeting in May of the nations’ defense ministers -- the first since 2011.

The comfort women issue has been the thorniest dividing the two. The women will file a $20 million lawsuit against Japan in San Francisco next month, said Ahn Shin Kwon, who runs a shelter for them.

Park has demanded Japan accept greater responsibility for forcing women into military brothels and offer compensation to the dozens of surviving South Korean comfort women. Japan contends that aid paid when normalizing ties in 1965 and later individual apologies and offers of compensation to the victims should have settled the issue.

Abe -- while publicly questioning whether the Imperial Army forced the women into service -- has agreed to talks on the issue. Park said in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this month that a deal was possible.

In another sign of easing tensions, the South Korean foreign ministry pledged “harmonious talks” to cooperate with Japan’s push to have 23 industrial sites from its Meiji era obtain UNESCO World Heritage status. The country has demanded that their registration recognize that some of the sites used forced Korean laborers.

(A previous version of this story corrected the month of the U.S. diplomat’s remarks in the eighth paragraph.)

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