TOKYO -- America has persuaded the leaders of its two East Asian allies to agree to their first formal sit-down. That is a step on what looks to be a long, hard road to a true rapprochement between Japan and South Korea.
"I think that's great," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said to reporters Friday when asked about next week's three-way summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
More than a year into his comeback government, Abe had felt a certain frustration at being unable to bring about a summit, essential for presenting a united front on North Korea.
Time and again, Park had said that progress on resolving historical issues between South Korea and Japan must come first.
Last week, Abe said his government would not revise Japan's 1993 admission that its wartime military leaders had a hand in rounding up women for army brothels. Abe's reassurance that the so-called Kono statement will stand seems to accord with the Obama administration's wishes.
America's push for dialogue produced mixed feelings in Seoul.
"We could hardly refuse such a forceful request from the U.S.," a South Korean government source said. "After all, we have the most at stake in the problem of North Korea."
Japan and South Korea are now moving to start intergovernmental talks on the "comfort women" dispute, allowing Park to claim the progress she had insisted on.
Both countries' foreign ministries made it a point to say the U.S. will "host" the summit next Tuesday, to be held on the sidelines of a nuclear disarmament conference in The Netherlands. Obama's invitation provides a fig leaf for Park, which Tokyo seems to be helping keep in place.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to South Korea last month gave the impetus for the summit. His meeting with Park lasted far longer than scheduled, and much of the talk was about Japanese-Korean relations, according to a South Korean government source. The U.S. would "work very hard" for a rapprochement between its two allies ahead of Obama's trip to Asia in April, Kerry told reporters in Seoul.
But the going looks tough. On the issue of wartime sex workers, Seoul is insisting on an admission of legal responsibility from the Japanese government, an apology from the prime minister, and aid to victims appropriated from the national budget. Tokyo's fallback position is that any such legal claims were resolved by a 1965 agreement.
The current chill in Japanese-Korean relations stems from a dispute over territory, not wartime abuses. Back in 2012, before Abe's comeback, then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Dokdo, a group of islets between the two countries that Japan claims and calls Takeshima. Both sides continue to talk past each other on the question of sovereignty.
The list of grievances goes on. South Korea insists that Abe must not visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals among other casualties. A number of lawsuits in South Korea are seeking damages for victims of forced labor in wartime Japan -- a matter that Tokyo maintains was settled by the 1965 agreement. No prospect in sight, then, for Abe and Park sitting down without Obama in the middle.