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International relations

Abe-Park talks to include war disputes

SEOUL -- The leaders of Japan and South Korea are set to discuss the issue of wartime "comfort women" and other longstanding points of contention in talks Monday.

     The timing of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye's meeting was officially announced Wednesday. The summit directly follows tripartite talks including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday, and will be the first between Japanese and South Korean leaders since May 2012.

Cautious first step

"I look forward to frank and open discussion on a number of issues," Abe said, including those surrounding the women from South Korea and elsewhere who were forced into prostitution for Japanese forces during World War II. A territorial dispute over the island of Takeshima is also slated for discussion.

     "I want to set the tone for future relations between our countries," the prime minister added, speaking to reporters at Tokyo's Haneda airport. "It's critically important that, as leaders, we are able to make our thoughts known to one another. There are probably a fair number of points on which we can agree.".

     "Simply getting the two into talks will likely be the most meaningful development this time around," said a senior Japanese government official. Such a cautious stance may be designed to temper South Korean expectations that the meetings will bring measurable results.

Seeking resolution

Park, for her part, looks to secure concessions during the talks, including an apology from Abe admitting Japan's responsibility for the comfort women issue, and aid to survivors paid by the Japanese government. Repaying victims with government funds would signal to the public that Japan has truly taken responsibility, a South Korean government source said.

      A source close to the presidential Blue House says the South Korean position has been made known to Japan, and that the two sides are negotiating. But many in South Korea remain skeptical, fearing that the Japan-South Korea summit will ultimately be nothing more than a gesture toward dialogue. Others worry that relations between the countries could cool further if Abe maintains his hard line against holding contemporary Japan responsible for the country's wartime actions.

     Japan has shown some signs of cooperating. But for Tokyo to propose measures to settle the issue, Seoul will need to promise that the settlement will bring all talk of the matter to a close, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said. Japan is also demanding that a statue commemorating comfort women standing outside the country's embassy in the South Korean capital be removed -- a tough sell for Park and her supporters.

Cold shoulder

Hints have also emerged that South Korea may be putting more weight on talks between Park and Chinese Premier Li than on the meeting with Abe. Li is scheduled to touch down in Seoul and meet with Park Saturday. The premier's trip will be treated as a state visit, drawing a clear line between the reception accorded Li and that given to Abe, a Blue House source said. Li is set to meet with South Korea's prime minister and National Assembly speaker, business groups and others during his stay.

     Both China and South Korea released their joint meeting schedule ahead of the Japan-South Korea itinerary. The latter "was fairly difficult to put together, as South Korea-China  talks were given priority" and discussion of comfort women stymied negotiations, said a diplomatic source in Seoul.

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