Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki abruptly curtailed a visit to Seoul after meeting with his Korean counterpart Cho Tae-yong for around three hours on Wednesday afternoon.
It was the first contact between senior officials from the two countries in eight months.
Saiki had planned to stay in Seoul until Thursday but canceled an official dinner Wednesday evening and abruptly headed back to Japan, just nine hours after he arrived.
Tokyo had hoped that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye could hold their first one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague on March 24-25. Saiki denied media reports that the purpose of his visit was to propose a trilateral summit between Park, Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama.
Asked about persistent Korean calls for Japan to apologize sincerely for past atrocities, Saiki only said that both countries "share basic values" and that the Abe administration intends to "uphold the historical views" of previous Japanese governments.
In 1993, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a statement admitting imperial Japan's wartime atrocities and acknowledging that the Japanese Imperial Army was involved, directly and indirectly, in the sexual enslavement of Asian women for troops, and that coercion was used. Later Japanese administrations generally upheld the statement, but the Abe administration has voiced its intention to revise it.
Indeed, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga chose a press conference on Wednesday to claim that there was "no coercion" in the mobilization of sex slaves, slamming the doors on any imminent summit with Seoul. Suga said there was "no evidence" that the Japanese military had been involved in the mobilization of sex slaves.
The contradictory statements apparently led to the conclusion that there was no reason for Saiki to stay on.
The Park administration believes it is impossible to sit face to face with Abe as long as his government downplays Japanese wartime guilt. Abe has tried several times since last year to arrange a summit with Park whilst keeping up a barrage of revisionist rhetoric at home.
Late last year, lower-ranking officials met to discuss a possible summit at the Davos Forum in January, but the plans were immediately scuppered by Abe's visit to the militarist Yasukuni Shrine.