In the first bilateral talks between the two countries since 2012, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to speed up the resolution of the “comfort women” dispute, according to Reuters:
“Regarding the issue of “comfort women”, I believe we should not leave behind difficulties for future generations as we try to build a future-oriented cooperative relationship,” Abe told reporters in Seoul after the talks, which lasted about an hour and 40 minutes.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of the normalization of (Japan-South Korea) ties this year. Keeping that in mind, we’ve agreed to accelerate talks for the earliest possible resolution.”
The meeting was a diplomatic plus for Abe, who had sought two-way talks with Park amid a push by the United States for Japan and South Korea to improve relations in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Park told Abe that the dispute, which is over Japan’s responsibility to make amends for the sexual enslavement of Korean women during the 1930s and ’40s, was the “biggest stumbling block” in the path of better bilateral ties. Both leaders seemed to indicate that an agreement might come soon, perhaps even before the end of the year, though neither gave details about what it might look like.
The bilateral meeting came on the heels of a trilateral summit between Park, Abe, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Seoul. China had been signaling a desire to ease tensions in the north, even as it raises them in the South China Sea. Beijing has sought to give the impression that it got what it wanted in Seoul, and all three leaders said that cooperation has been “completely” restored between them.
Although the three countries did agree to resume negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program and to work towards a free trade agreement, plenty of cause for tension remains. Japan and China continue to squabble over islands in the East China Sea, and Japan contests China’s activities in the South China Sea. In his meeting with Park, Abe made sure to emphasize the importance of U.S. freedom of navigation exercises.
South Korea and Japan only hug when they must. If Tokyo and Seoul are talking about cooperating on contentious issues like comfort women, that suggests the two aren’t naively entering a détente with Beijing.