- Nakatani trip comes as Park prepares to host Li and Abe
- Japan will seek to revive intelligence-sharing agreement
When Gen Nakatani arrives in Seoul on Tuesday he’ll be the first Japanese defense minister to visit South Korea in nearly five years, signaling that growing regional security risks are trumping the disputes over territory and history that have blighted relations between the countries.
Nakatani’s trip comes days after South Korean President Park Geun Hye said she was willing to hold her first bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Park will host the Japanese leader in two weeks for the resumption of annual trilateral summits with China and South Korea that ground to a halt in 2012 when relations turned sour.
Any sign of easing tensions between Japan and South Korea will be welcomed by the U.S., whose efforts to balance out China’s growing assertiveness in the region and deter threats from a nuclear North Korea have been hampered by animosity between its two main East Asian allies. The flurry of diplomatic activity comes 18 months after U.S. President Barack Obama sought to nudge Park and Abe toward a rapprochement by inviting them to trilateral talks in the Hague.
Park’s willingness to meet Abe signals a new desire to separate the issue of regional security from the territorial and historical problems that have soured the countries’ ties under the two leaders, according to Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii. Any bilateral summit would nonetheless probably be chilly, he said.
"We may well be seeing the floor to the relationship and a modest rebound," he said. "It is unlikely that there will be any significant shift with these two leaders in power."
The urgency of mending ties has increased as North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and the range of its ballistic missiles, which can reach Seoul and Tokyo as well as the West Coast of the United States. The Kim Jong Un regime said last month it was willing to use nuclear weapons to attack its enemies at any point and confirmed that its main nuclear facility was operational, producing the atomic material needed to fuel new weapons.
Nakatani will meet his South Korean counterpart Han Min Koo Oct. 20 and visit one of the world’s most militarized borders during his trip. Thousands of troops face each other at Panmunjom more than 60 years after the Korean War ended in stalemate. Japan hopes to use the talks to revive the idea of an intelligence-sharing agreement dropped by South Korea at the last minute in 2012.
In another sign of improving defense ties, South Korea took part in a Japanese naval fleet review at the weekend for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese television showed a military band welcoming a South Korean ship into the military port of Yokosuka.
"South Korea is one of our most important neighboring countries and in terms of geopolitics it is very important to our security,” Nakatani said Oct. 16 in a statement posted on the ministry’s website. “As U.S. allies we share many strategic interests and close cooperation between us in terms of security would be very meaningful for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific.”
Even so, tension lingers over Japan’s wartime record. South Korea’s foreign ministry rebuked AbeSunday for sending an offering the previous day to a Tokyo shrine that commemorates millions of war dead, including leaders convicted as Class A war criminals.
While the two countries are each other’s third-largest trading partners, with almost $90 billion in bilateral commerce, many South Koreans remain mistrustful of Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula for 35 years until its defeat in World War II.
Abe’s efforts to strengthen the role of the military have fueled suspicion and a growing majority of South Koreans see Japan as a military threat, according to a survey conducted by think tanks in April and May. About three quarters of South Korean respondents to the poll said they had a negative image of Japan, mostly because of a perceived lack of remorse for past aggression.
Since coming to power in February 2013, Park has rebuffed Abe’s efforts to hold a bilateral summit, saying that Abe must first do more to take responsibility for Japan’s wartime past. Park said last week during a trip to Washington to meet Obama that she was now open to the possibility when the two Asian leaders gather in Seoul for talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in early November.
Still, she said truly mending ties would require substantive progress on the issue of Korean women trafficked to Imperial Army brothels before and during World War II -- one of the most painful problems dividing the two countries. Japan apologized for the treatment of the women in 1993 and offered compensation, which was rejected by some of the victims in South Korea. Many Japanese nationalists dismiss the victims as willing prostitutes.
"The Korean people are keenly following this upcoming meeting," Park told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noting that only 47 of the aging former "comfort women" remain. "Literally we don’t have much time in dealing with this issue and making sure we can bring closure to their pent-up agony," she said, through an interpreter.