The leaders of Korea, Japan and the United States held their first summit Tuesday on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.
The three-way summit drew keen attention as it offered a chance for the estranged leaders of Korea and Japan to meet face to face for the first time since taking office more than a year ago.
U.S. President Barack Obama took pains to persuade President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to sit down and mend their frayed ties.
Obama’s mediation efforts worked. At the summit, the three leaders resolved to deepen tripartite cooperation in pressing North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.
That was no small achievement. Park attached meaning to the meeting itself, saying that it was important for the three nations to meet and discuss the North Korean nuclear issue.
Yet that was about all the meeting could do. Little progress was made in thawing relations between Korea and Japan.
The agenda of the summit was limited to North Korea’s nuclear programs as the two neighbors were still not ready to discuss the historical and territorial problems that have been plaguing their relations.
Whether the trilateral summit leads to improved ties or not depends entirely on Japan’s future actions. Yet the prospects are dim in light of the long list of events scheduled for next month that could roil bilateral relations.
In the first place, Tokyo will announce its review of elementary school history textbooks early next month. The announcement was slated for March 26 but was delayed in consideration of the three-way summit.
Almost all textbooks that have passed the review reportedly state that Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo belong to Japan.
This is certain to trigger a backlash from Korea, given that the textbooks teach young Japanese students a distorted version of history, infusing them with unfounded hostility toward Korea.
Tokyo is also set to announce its 2014 Diplomatic Bluebook early next month, which is expected to reiterate the claim that Dokdo is Japanese territory, historically and under international law.
As in previous years, the Seoul government is highly likely to lodge a protest against Tokyo’s publication of the misleading annual report.
The “comfort women” issue also remains a flashpoint. Before the summit with Park, Abe pledged not to revise the Kono Statement, Japan’s 1993 apology for forcing Korean women into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Yet the Abe administration is determined to verify the testimonies of Korean comfort women in its bid to undercut the legitimacy of the statement.
Abe and his ilk cannot stomach the statement as it acknowledges the Japanese government’s coercion of the women into sexual slavery. This stands in the way of glorifying Japan’s military past and projecting Japan to young people as a “beautiful” country that they can die for.
But any attempt to undermine the value of the Kono Statement is bound to disrupt Japan’s relations with Korea and other Asian countries.
Another event that could freeze bilateral ties is the annual spring festival at Yasukuni Shrine from April 21-23. If Japanese politicians visit the shrine en masse, as they did last year, to make offerings, it will anger Korea and other neighboring countries.
Whether Tokyo is serious about repairing ties with Seoul or not will be shown through these events. We really hope Abe and the Japanese leaders show “sincerity” by refraining from provocative activities.