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Hopes for Korea-Japan thaw grow

Hopes are rising slowly for a long-awaited thaw in relations between Korea and Japan as Seoul appears to be sending out reconciliatory signals while pressing Tokyo to come clean about its wartime atrocities.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se sat down with Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho for tea on the sidelines of a joint culture event on Sunday, marking their first one-on-one consultation.

During the one-hour talk, the two diplomats concurred on the need for consistent efforts to shore up the relationship, such as through cultural cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, Seoul officials said.

Yun asked Bessho to help bring about the “momentum” for the relations to make progress, with the two countries gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties.

The surprise meeting may indicate an about-face in Yun’s principled stance toward an unrepentant Japan. While the event has been attended by a vice culture minister since 2005, Yun had given the cold shoulder to the idea since he took office in March 2013, brushing off Bessho’s request for a courtesy visit last year in the face of heated historical tension. 
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (right) and Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho attend a joint culture event in southern Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (right) and Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho attend a joint culture event in southern Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)

In contrast, former Korean Ambassador Lee Byung-kee had managed to meet with not only Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, but also Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at least twice until he was succeeded by Yoo Heung-soo late last month.

In another sign of rapprochement, Seoul last week engineered the first trilateral deputy-minister-level dialogue with Tokyo and Beijing since November. During the session, the sides agreed to work together for a foreign ministers’ meeting soon and eventually a summit. This month’s U.N. General Assembly may set the stage for the foreign ministers’ talks.

The chief delegates of Korea and Japan held a separate consultation on its margins. Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong is also eyeing a fresh round of bilateral strategic dialogue this year. Such talks were last held in January 2013.

The move contrasted with Korea’s longstanding reluctance toward a bilateral summit between Abe and President Park Geun-hye, as well as its heated international campaign to raise awareness about Japan’s sexual enslavement of Asian women during World War II and bring justice to the victims and their families.

The apparent turnaround came as Seoul seeks to put its ties with Tokyo back on track, with the Park presidency entering the final stage of its second year and coming under pressure for legacy in foreign affairs and security, which is deemed Park’s forte.

The upcoming fourth round of director-general-level talks could determine the near future of the bilateral relations, observers say, for which Korea has called for a concrete and viable proposal to put an end to the “comfort women” row.

“Japan should come up with a substantive formula, which I think they are currently working on. We’re trying to do our part (to restore the relationship), but the resolution of the comfort women issue is inevitably the starting point,” a Seoul official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

By Shin Hyon-hee (