Abe, Park to Meet Obama as U.S. Seeks Thaw for Asian Allies

The leaders of Japan and South Korea will hold their first meeting during a three-way summit hosted by President Barack Obama, as the U.S. seeks to bridge the animosity between its two key allies in Asia.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun Hye will meet with Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague starting on March 24, South Korean presidential office spokesman Min Kyung Wook said today by phone. Park had declined talks with Abe, who she has accused of “denying the past,” referring to atrocities committed during Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea that included forcing thousands of women to work as sex slaves for its soldiers.

For the U.S., deteriorating ties between its allies have hampered efforts to build a united front to contain a more assertive China and to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Japan and Korea are key to the success of Obama’s rebalance toward Asia, and the U.S. maintains more than 65,000 troops across the two countries.

The three-way meeting in the Hague will focus on dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and the threat of proliferation in the region, Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

Door Open

Abe has sought to meet with Park, with the two leaders elected within days of each other in December 2012. Japan’s door is always open to talks with South Korea, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on March 17.

“A push from the U.S. would have been the biggest driver in having this three-way summit,” said Lee Shin Wha, a professor of political science and international relations at Korea University in Seoul. “For both Japan and South Korea, it is much better to do the summit when the U.S. is in the middle of them because they can bypass sensitive topics for just two nations and discuss regional and international topics such as Ukraine and North Korea’s nuclear activities.”

North Korea

Japan also announced today that it would hold the first high-level talks with North Korea on March 30-31. Japan has been pushing North Korea to repatriate the remains of Japanese soldiers from World War II and has demanded Pyongyang clarify the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Park expressed anger at signals from Abe’s government that the administration was questioning a 1993 apology over the use of women as sex slaves by Japanese troops, and has warned of a rise in Japanese nationalism.

Last month, the Japanese government announced it would review the evidence that led to that apology, much of which was testimony by women who had been abducted or coerced into serving in a network of “comfort stations” in the 1930s and 1940s.

Comfort Women

Japan and South Korea will hold a separate meeting to discuss the issue of the comfort women, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Abe on March 14 tried to put some of those concerns to rest by publicly announcing that his government respected Japan’s three main apologies over its militant past.

The U.S.’s biggest challenge in Northeast Asia “may be the deterioration of relations between Seoul and Tokyo,” Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told a Senate committee on March 4. “Memories of the past century continue to infuse contemporary political relations in Northeast Asia; and since 2012, the Japan-ROK relationship has taken a turn for the worse,” she said, referring to South Korea.

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