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S. Korea's Park, Japan's Abe Could Hold Bilateral Talks

  • Brian Padden

South Korea President Park Geun-hye, left, and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attend a summit in South Korea with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later this month, the first such meeting since they were discontinued in 2012.

South Korea President Park Geun-hye, left, and Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attend a summit in South Korea with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later this month, the first such meeting since they were discontinued in 2012.

It is possible but not yet confirmed that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will meet November 2 during the first trilateral summit of leaders from China, Japan and South Korea to be held since 2012.

The South Korean presidential office announced the proposed bilateral Monday.

Abe will be in Seoul November 1-2 for the trilateral but has not yet responded to Park’s request to hold a one-on-one meeting with her on the summit sidelines.

'Comfort women' issue

One Japanese newspaper suggested that Tokyo and Seoul are still negotiating over how to handle the contentious “comfort women” issue.

Park, who took office in 2013, had until now refused to hold a formal meeting with Abe until he offered a “sincere apology” and compensation to the thousands of Asian “comfort women” forced into prostitution by Japan’s military during its colonization of much of Asia until the end of World War Two.

Abe’s Japanese nationalist supporters have stirred public protests in South Korea and China by suggesting many of the women were not forced but voluntarily worked in military brothels for financial gain.

But in August, Park indicated she would overlook Abe’s omissions and focus instead on his promise to uphold past Japanese apologie, including the 1993 Kono Statement that offered apologies and remorse to comfort women.

China will be represented at the summit by Premier Li Keqiang, who will be in Seoul October 31 to November 2. No explanation was given as to why the heads of state from Japan and South Korea will meet with Li and not with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trilateral meetings

In 2008 the three major Northeast Asian leaders began to meet on an annual basis, but the summits were suspended after 2012 because of intensifying territorial disputes.

China and Japan hold conflicting claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

Japan and South Korea have their own ongoing dispute over two islets, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.

However, Japan’s seeming unrepentant attitude under Abe over its wartime past has intensified regional resentment and anger against Tokyo.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday that this issue will be addressed at the summit.

“We hope each side can properly handle the historical issues by facing up to history squarely and working together for the future," Hua said.

Regional security

Japan analyst Hosaka Yuji, a political science professor at Sejong University, does not expect any further concessions from Abe on this issue. Instead, he said Park has decided it is time to move on to more pressing concerns.

“It is not appropriate nor in South Korea's national interest to stop working on other diplomatic issues to focus exclusively on the comfort women issue,” Hosaka said.

Washington has been urging its two major military allies in Asia to reconcile so as to improve regional security coordination.

Japan strongly supports U.S. efforts to protect freedom of navigation in the Pacific and to counter China’s aggressive claims on the South China Sea.

The U.S. Navy Tuesday sent a warship within 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles) of man-made islands built by China in the South China Sea.

South Korea however has been reluctant to criticize China so as to maintain Beijing’s support for sanctions against Pyongyang.

North Korea nuclear threat

Seoul and Tokyo both support Washington’s position that Pyongyang must first halt its nuclear development program before any new international talks to ease sanctions and increase economic assistance can begin.

Beijing, however, may support more positive outreach given Pyongyang’s recent good behavior and restraint in holding off on missile and nuclear tests.

“In order to resolve the North Korea issue, China may have a strategy to put brakes on South Korea, the United States and Japan,” said Japan analyst Hosaka.

South Korea and China have also voiced concerns over Japan’s recent security legislation, which authorizes the military to protect japanese interests and assist its ally Washington in times of crisis.

Seoul wants to clarify that Tokyo still needs its permission to enter Korean territory.

TPP agreement

The U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement will also likely be discussed.

Japan is one of the 12 member countries of the regional free trade agreement that would cover 40 percent of world trade. South Korea has expressed interest in joining the TPP.

China is not part of the pact and the TPP is seen by some as a way to counter China's growing economic power.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.