April 26, 2014 3:42 am JST

Obama demands Japan act on mending South Korean ties

KIYOYUKI UCHIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- Using surprisingly harsh language to condemn Japan's wartime brothels, U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday urged Tokyo to squarely face its past and work toward improving relations with Seoul.

     His fourth trip to South Korea, the first since President Park Geun-hye took office in February 2013, came at a time of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with the North showing signs of carrying out a fourth nuclear test. The U.S. president is apparently no longer willing to sit idly by as the wartime "comfort women" issue continues to shake Japanese-South Korean and trilateral ties.

     Speaking at a press conference after meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Obama called the Japanese military's use of comfort women during World War II a "terrible, egregious violation of human rights." He added that they were "violated in ways that, even in the midst of war, was shocking."

     "They deserve to be heard, they deserve to be respected," he said, adding that "there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened."

     Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Japanese people recognize "that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly," Obama said.

     Just before Obama made these remarks, Park emphasized the importance of resolving the comfort women issue. Otherwise, she said, it would be difficult to maintain momentum from a recent three-way summit.

     That meeting, brokered by Obama in The Hague late last month, reaffirmed the need for the three nations to work together to address the North Korean threat. Park effectively said a failure to resolve the wartime comfort women issue would hinder Japanese-South Korean and trilateral cooperation on defense.

     In their Friday meeting, Obama and Park affirmed the importance of the U.S., South Korea and Japan sharing information on North Korea's nuclear missiles. According to the South Korean Defense Ministry, the three countries will consider exchanging memorandums of understanding on the issue.

     But progress on the South Korean side has been slow when it comes to the sharing of military intelligence with its former colonial ruler, in light of history and consideration for China. It would be difficult to achieve should the South Korean public object.

     Other issues demand consideration as well, including the possibility of an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement that would allow the Japanese and South Korean militaries to transfer fuel and supplies to one another.

     The stability of the Korean Peninsula forms the bedrock of Obama's foreign policy "pivot" to Asia.

     Obama called on South Korea and Japan to "look forward as well as backwards" to find ways to resolve problems from the past while keeping an eye on the future. But in essence, both Washington and Seoul are demanding Japan take steps to atone for its past.