Tokyo: Tokyo on Wednesday hailed the first summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a chance for the leaders to build a rapport, although Seoul offered a cooler response.
The talks in The Hague were hosted by US President Barack Obama, whose administration is increasingly frustrated by incessant sniping between its two major Asian allies.
“It seemed that (Park) did not have a good impression of the prime minister, so I think she was able to get a glimpse of his real personality,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo.
South Korean media said Park appeared unimpressed by Abe’s attempts to speak Korean during a photo opportunity before the meeting, reporting that her reply was to stare ahead, “stony-faced”.
Seoul’s presidential office also offered a very dry assessment of the three-way summit, saying that it “provided an opportunity for the three nations to share a consensus about North Korea’s nuclear threat”.
The gathering, held on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, was followed within hours by Pyongyang’s test-firing of two ballistic missiles, underscoring tensions in northeast Asia.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their worst in years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, particularly Japan’s use of South Korean “comfort women” as sex slaves in wartime brothels.
Although not a one-on-one encounter, the talks are a significant step forward and mark a departure from Park’s oft-repeated stance that there could be no summit with Abe until Tokyo demonstrates sincere repentance for “past wrongdoings”.
Despite not being known for his skill with languages, Abe gamely kicked off the greeting in Korean, saying: “President Park, it’s nice to meet you”.
Suga sidestepped a question about Park’s apparently bloodless response, saying he did not know how she reacted immediately, “but finally they shook hands, that was good”, he said.
“Japan and South Korea both value freedom and democracy and are important neighbours ... It’s extremely important for both countries and for the security of East Asia as a whole that we establish a future-oriented relationship,” he added.
Ties frayed in 2012 when a dispute erupted over the ownership of a pair of sparsely inhabited islets in the Japan Sea, which Koreans call the East Sea, and went downhill with the election of the hawkish Abe later that year.
Park’s assumption of office in early 2013 marked a further hardening of the rhetoric, which was exacerbated by Abe’s tendency to flirt with historical revisionism.
Recent surveys in South Korea have shown that the Japanese leader is even more unpopular with South Koreans than North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un.
But prospects for a meeting between the two rose earlier this month after the Japanese leader promised to honour Tokyo’s two previous apologies over its colonial past, issued in 1993 and 1995.
Japanese politicians express exasperation at the repeated requests for contrition, pointing to numerous apologies as well as a 1965 agreement that normalised relations and included a large payment to Seoul.
Eom Sang-Yoon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul, said the meeting — under US pressure — was a step towards slightly warmer ties, but only a small one.
“Cooperation is possible between Seoul and Tokyo on North Korea, but there will be no breakthrough in their strained relations without a dramatic change in Abe’s attitude,” he said. “There is a long way to go before we see a bilateral summit between Park and Abe”
Narushige Michishita, associate professor at the National Graduate Institute For Policy Studies, said Park is tough on Japan “because she has to distance herself from her pro-Japanese father to avoid attacks from the opposition”.
“But most fundamentally, the Park administration takes security strategy of strengthening ties with the United States and China, paying less attention to relations with Japan,” he said.