TOKYO -- The Japanese government is leaning toward proposing a summit meeting with South Korea in March, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye both attend the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands.
Ties between the neighbors have deteriorated in recent months over a string of obstacles including legacy issues from the past -- such as Japan's colonial rule and wartime brothels -- as well as a territorial dispute. With President Barack Obama slated to visit the region in April, the U.S. government is now prodding Tokyo and Seoul to mend fences before he arrives.
A senior ranking official at Japan's Foreign Ministry said Friday that Tokyo is willing to take steps toward repairing relations with South Korea. "Rather than simply opening the door and quietly waiting, we must also try different things," he said.
Next Tuesday, Junichi Ihara, who is in charge of Asian and Oceanian affairs at the ministry, will visit Seoul to confer with Lee Sang-deok, director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau at South Korea's Foreign Ministry. They will meet for the first time since Abe's visit to Yasukuni Shrine late last year. Ihara also plans to have talks with Cho Tae-yong, Seoul's special envoy to the six-party talks.
Meanwhile, at a press conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed Japan's commitment to restoring ties with South Korea. "On the Japanese side, the door to a dialogue is always open, and we would like to patiently work on building cooperative relations with South Korea from a big-picture perspective."
The nuclear disarmament summit appears to be the only opportunity for both Abe and Park to meet before Obama's Asian trip. Obama decided to stop by Seoul during his upcoming trip at Seoul's urging. Some Japanese officials harbor hope that Park might acquiesce to the U.S. request for improving ties with Japan.
But the issue of "comfort women" looms large. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a meeting Thursday with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, pressed for a rapprochement. Asked about the rift with Japan, Yun told reporters: "These (Japanese political) leaders must look at history as it is, and they must be very sincere."
On the comfort women issue, President Park is urging the Japanese government to honor the so-called Kono statement, a 1993 statement issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono expressing remorse for the suffering of these women.
Japan's Shimane Prefecture will celebrate "Takeshima Day" on Feb. 22, trumpeting its claim to Sea of Japan islets that South Korea effectively controls and calls Dokdo. The Japanese government plans to send a Cabinet Office parliamentary secretary to attend the ceremonies. In response, South Korea's Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned a Seoul-based Japanese diplomat over these moves, demanding that the ceremonies be called off and that the government representative not participate.
On the Japanese side, Abe insists that a summit be held without any precondition whatsoever. With just over a month left before the nuclear conference in March, "the prospect of a summit materializing in this time frame is very difficult," says a senior Foreign Ministry official.