It is still difficult to predict how soon and in what way South Korea and Japan could mend their ties, sorely strained by the regressive Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Yet the latest developments over the weekend have raised a glimmer of hope.
The first positive sign came from Abe on Friday. He said that he would uphold the 1993 Kono Statement and the 1995 Murayama Statement, which respectively acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement in sex slavery during World War II and apologized for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea and other neighboring countries.
Specifically, it marked the first time that the Japanese prime minister officially stated that he would uphold the Kono Statement. Tokyo’s attempts to water down its significance has been a source of friction between South Korea and Japan.
We may soon learn whether Abe is serious this time. Nevertheless, President Park Geun-hye welcomed the remark, saying that it was “fortunate” that the Japanese leader expressed his intention to uphold the landmark statements acknowledging his country’s past atrocities. This marked the first time that the Korean president, who took office a little over a year ago, has made any positive statement regarding the Japanese leader.
On Monday, Park’s spokesman went on to say that South Korea is open to summit talks with Japan. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook did make it clear that Tokyo should first take sincere steps on historical issues to create the right conditions for a summit. That there is talk of a possible summit between the estranged leaders, who have avoided even small talk during international meetings, can be seen as progress.
As things stand, news reports, mostly from Japan, have suggested the possibility of a summit between Park and Abe or the two being part of a three-way meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit slated for next week in The Hague.
One can guess why Abe wants to come to terms with Park. As allies of the U.S., both Tokyo and Seoul need to maintain close cooperation on China’s growing power in the region and the perennial threat from North Korea. Abe also must be feeling greater U.S. pressure to improve ties with Seoul as Obama’s trip to Asia, including Seoul and Tokyo, draws nearer.
There is no reason to reject outright the idea of leaders engaging in dialogue to resolve problems and restore relations between their two countries. Eventually, any big knot should be untied by the leaders themselves. But is Abe’s remark on the Kono Statement enough to set up a summit with Park? The answer is probably no.
A closer look at the Japanese capital on the day when Abe mentioned the Kono Statement shows why one cannot help but remain skeptical. He described the 1993 statement as “the so-called Kono Statement.” You don’t call something you believe in “so-called.” Abe also said the study of history should be left to scholars, a phrase he uses to avoid placing responsibility on the Japanese government for wartime wrongdoings.
On the same day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made it clear that the Japanese government would continue to verify the testimonies of 16 Korean former sex slaves on which the 1993 statement was based. Why do they need to verify or scrutinize it if they do not want to revise it?
Looking at these signs, one cannot be sure whether Abe really was serious when he said he would uphold both the Kono and Murayama statements. President Park definitely needs more serious, concrete actions from the Japanese leader before considering a summit with him. It is up to Abe to keep the glimmer of hope alive and eventually realize the long overdue summit between the two leaders.