January 31, 2017 5:00 am JST

Japan-South Korea statue row delays summit with China

Friction over 'comfort women' memorial leaves few chances for dialogue

The leaders of South Korea, Japan and China meet once a year as a rule.

TOKYO -- Tensions between Japan and South Korea over a new "comfort women" statue look likely to scuttle Tokyo's efforts to reschedule a delayed trilateral summit with China, with relations showing no signs of thawing over the past month.

Under a 2015 deal to "finally and irreversibly" resolve a long-standing historical dispute, Japan contributed 1 billion yen ($8.79 million) to support former wartime comfort women. South Korea, meanwhile, promised to make an effort to remove a statue symbolizing comfort women from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. But the statue remains in place, and another was erected in front of the consulate in Busan by a private organization in late December.

"The Japanese side has fulfilled all its obligations, and we tenaciously urge South Korea to implement the agreement sincerely," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a Diet budget committee meeting Monday.

Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea on Jan. 6, while local lawmakers in South Korea are looking to have another statue installed on disputed islets claimed by Seoul as Dokdo and by Tokyo as Takeshima. With relations cooling further, Japan has no time frame for sending its envoy back. Hardliners in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party argued last week that the ambassador should not return until Seoul clearly shows that it is willing to work to resolve the situation.

The diplomatic spat is affecting arrangements for an annual trilateral summit involving Japan, South Korea and China. The 2016 meeting, which was to be hosted by Japan, was derailed by South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment and suspension from office in December.

Tokyo has tried to reschedule the meeting for February or March, treating the Busan statue as a separate issue. Abe told lawmakers Wednesday that the government would work to have the summit held in Japan as early as possible this year.

But "with relations between Japan and South Korea this strained, we're not making any progress on organizing it," a Foreign Ministry insider admitted.

Contributing to the standstill is China's inclination to wait and see how things play out. After Park's suspension, Tokyo sounded Beijing out on a proposal to have the acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, attend in her place, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry source. But China refused to "hold a meeting for the sake of holding a meeting," the source said.

(Nikkei)

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