Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki visits Seoul on Wednesday to meet his Korean counterpart Cho Tae-yong. This is the first high-level meeting between the two sides since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe angered neighbors by visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Last month, the Japanese government tried to send Shotaro Yachi, Abe's national security advisor, but that fell through.
The meeting comes ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Korea and Japan in April and may not be unrelated to prods from Washington for Seoul and Tokyo to try and improve strained ties.
Japanese media expect Saiki to promise Seoul that Tokyo will not revise a 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono admitting imperial Japan's wartime atrocities. In the statement, Kono acknowledged that the Japanese Imperial Army was involved, directly and indirectly, in the sexual enslavement of Asian women for troops, and that coercion was used.
Seoul and Tokyo have based their fragile relations on the Kono statement and another statement in 1995 by then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama admitting and apologizing for Japan's colonial rule. Later Japanese administrations generally upheld the two statements, which although in some ways short of a full act of repentance have paved the way for closer bilateral relations. But the Abe administration keeps shilly-shallying over them as it lurches ever further to the nationalist right.
In a Q&A session at the Diet last month, Abe said the Kono statement needs to be revised, providing grist to the mill of ultra-conservatives who felt emboldened to claim that the entire sex slaves issue is a fabrication by Japan's enemies. Japan is seriously mistaken if it thinks that a mere promise to leave the Kono statement alone will cause Korean officials to leap with joy.
They know full well that there is no end to the Japanese government's sophistry. For example, Tokyo recently said it sent only a vice minister and not a minister to a ceremony marking Japan's flimsy territorial claim to Korea's Dokdo islets "out of consideration" for Korea, as if sending any senior official at all was anything but a calculated affront.
Diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan have been virtually severed for more than a year now. This bodes ill for the close cooperation that is needed between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo in dealing with North Korea's nuclear threat. If the Abe administration is truly interested in mending ties with Korea, it needs to stop mincing words over the Kono statement and muzzle more rabid officials. That is the only way the high-level talks can produce any results.