Abe summit puts Park’s ‘principled’ diplomacy to test

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Mar 23, 2014 - 21:03
  • Updated : Mar 23, 2014 - 21:03
President Park Geun-hye faces a major test to her “principled” diplomacy at an upcoming summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who still refuses to repent for the country’s imperial past and sticks to his hawkish security stance.

The two leaders are scheduled to join U.S. President Barack Obama in The Hague on Tuesday for a three-way summit on the sidelines of a nuclear security conference. It will mark the first formal contact between Park and Abe since their inaugurations about a year ago.

The meeting is expected to focus on North Korea’s nuclear program, but many are watching to see whether the two Asian leaders will manage to reconcile after years of frayed ties.

Park has refused Abe’s repeated offers of talks, citing Japan’s failure to displays its “sincerity,” in particular toward resolving the longstanding issue of Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II. 
President Park Geun-hye waves as she embarks on her seven-day trip to the Netherlands and Germany at the Seoul Military Airport in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Park has held at least two summits with the leaders of the U.S., China and Russia. Park’s predecessors had talks with their Japanese counterparts in her first year in office.

Her participation in the trilateral meeting was made possible due chiefly to the intensifying pressure from Washington. U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry have urged the two top regional allies to work to end historical and territorial feuds ahead of Obama’s planned visit next month.

Abe, for his part, made a conciliatory gesture by pledging to uphold Tokyo’s landmark 1993 apology for its mobilization of Korea women into frontline brothels. Japan also postponed the unveiling of newly approved school textbooks, some of which are likely to contain revisionist statements.

Korea’s about-face toward the summit with Abe caused confusion at home.

Apparently wary of public sentiment against Japan, Cheong Wa Dae instructed the Foreign Ministry to announce and handle the tripartite summit, an unprecedented breach of diplomatic protocol.

The ministry, however, appeared completely unaware of details of the decision until presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook made the reference on Friday morning.

After repeating Min’s lines for hours, the ministry issued a two-sentence news release that added that Korea and Japan are arranging director-general-level talks on the so-called comfort women issue.

Any such meeting should have significance as the first of its kind since the sex slavery issue came to light in 1991. Yet its prospects seem highly gloomy given the stark differences between the two sides.

Seoul is demanding sincere apologies and compensation for the aging victims, whereas Tokyo claims the issue was already settled through a 1965 agreement that normalized the bilateral ties.

“Our participation in the trilateral summit is in line with our consistent position that we closely cooperate with the U.S. and Japan to address the North Korean nuclear program, and it’s also timely given the North’s recent escalation of threats,” a senior ministry official said on customary condition of anonymity.

“As for relations with Japan, we have maintained our stance … we look to their stable development based on correct historical understanding.”

Many observers have claimed that Abe’s endorsement of the 1993 Kono Statement represents no “progress” in the Japanese stance and only maintains the status quo.

Rather, the two countries face further flashpoints in the coming months, they say, including the textbook examination and an annual spring festival during which Abe may visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine again.

“In the worst case scenario, Park may end up returning home empty-handed while her two counterparts have carried out their intentions,” a foreign policy expert said, asking for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“Seoul could then once again face criticism for its adherence to principles and lack of a consistent, far-sighted strategy.”

In Germany, Park is expected to unveil a fresh approach to her unification drive in the former East German city of Dresden.

With unification being the centerpiece of the second year of her presidency, the conservative president said unification would provide a “bonanza” for all Koreans and an opportunity for the nation to take a great leap forward in her New Year address.

The government-wide drive seems to be shaping into a fresh ruling ideology, a drastic shift from Park’s “trust-building process” policy. The much-trumpeted initiative was designed to reengage Pyongyang while deterring its saber rattling by gradually forging trust through small projects, which would then lead to greater collaboration.

To calm previous skepticism over her slogan-brimming diplomatic initiatives, her main task will be to map out a long-term vision with realistic, detailed action plans, observers say. 

Highlights of Park’s trip to the Netherlands, Germany

― March 24
Summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the Nuclear Security Summit

― March 25
Second day of Nuclear Security Summit, a tripartite meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

― March 26
Talks with German President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin

― March 27
A meeting with Korean and German businessmen

― March 28
Honorary doctorate conferment ceremony at Dresden University of Technology

By Shin Hyon-hee (