TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is trying to arrange a trilateral summit with South Korea and the United States for this month, a government official said on Wednesday, in a bid to thaw Tokyo’s frozen relations with Seoul.
Seoul appears cool to the idea of a meeting of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a global nuclear-security summit in the Hague, Netherlands, on March 24-25.
Japan hopes that with mutual ally Obama in the room, Park would be willing to sit down face-to-face with Abe, something the Japanese leader has sought unsuccessfully since he took office 15 months ago.
Abe has visited the leaders of all 10 Southeast Asian nations and met five times with Russia’s president but has yet to meet one-on-one with the leaders of South Korea or China.
Japan’s ties with both neighbours have worsened over bilateral territorial disputes and a feeling in Seoul and Beijing that Tokyo has not atoned for its acts in World War Two.
A Japanese official, who was briefed on the trilateral summit strategy, said it was unclear whether Seoul would respond to the push for a three-way meeting.
A South Korean government official indicated no progress was likely unless Japan makes further efforts to resolve frictions stemming from Japan’s world time past.
“As long as there is no change to Japan’s view on the question of history, there is no consideration for any kind of summit with Japan,” the official said.
America is spearheading the summit effort, worried that the worsening of relations between its two key Asian allies could affect U.S. strategy in the region, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper said. White House and U.S. State Department officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Washington’s top East Asia diplomat called last week for Tokyo and Seoul to work urgently to reduce tensions.
There was no comment from the White House or the State Department in Washington on Wednesday, but a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council said:
“We believe good relations between our key allies Japan and Korea are in the best interests of the two countries themselves, in the best interests of the region and in the best interests of the United States.
“As we’ve said repeatedly, we hope Japan and the ROK will work together to resolve their differences in an amicable way through dialogue.”
The summit idea was believed to have to come up in a meeting on Wednesday in Seoul between Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki and South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong. The agenda for the meeting is bilateral relations and North Korea, the two countries’ foreign ministries said.
Officials declined to comment afterwards.
In addition to Abe’s December visit to a shrine that Asian countries say glorifies Japan’s World War Two aggression, a flashpoint with Seoul has been the issue of wartime “comfort women,” a euphemism for women, mostly Korean, who were pressed into service as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers.
Abe has repeatedly stuck by a 1993 government apology for the treatment of the women and admission that Japanese authorities were involved in procuring them for military brothels.
Japan sparked outrage recently by announcing it would review the circumstances behind the 1993 apology, known as the Kono statement. Japanese nationalists despise the document, claiming there is no evidence Japan was involved in coercing the women.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that despite the review, the government will not rescind the statement. “I’ve said repeatedly ... that the Abe government will uphold the Kono statement. Japan would like to continue explaining that point to countries concerned,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Jack Kim and Ju-min Park in Seoul, David Brunnstrom and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by William Mallard; Editing by Michael Perry and Andrew Hay