President Park Geun-hye will take part in a trilateral summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24-25.
Key South Korean government officials came to the conclusion that the time for a bilateral summit with Japan has not yet come, but that the trilateral summit is inevitable because it will allow the three leaders to have their courtesy photos taken and engage in some dialogue.
In the Diet on Tuesday, Abe vowed to strive for a "future-oriented relationship" with Korea at the Nuclear Security Summit.
Since Korea and Japan normalized relations in 1965, the leaders of the two countries have held summits within the first year of any incoming president. Park's administration is only exception, and the upcoming trilateral meeting is not the same as these two-way summits. Abe knows exactly why Park will not sit down with him one-to-one.
Since taking office, the Japanese prime minister has been relentless in his attempts to whitewash his country's World War II atrocities, as if hell-bent on destroying ties with Korea. Not only has he made comments denying Japan's war crimes, he went even further in December last year by paying homage to the Yasukuni Shrine which honors convicted war criminals among the country's fallen. In January, he instructed education officials that Japanese children must learn that Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo belong to Japan, and in February he voiced his intention to revise a statement made in 1993 by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono 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.
All of this is unacceptable.
The trilateral summit could pave the way for icy Korea-Japan relations to thaw. Seoul, Washington and Tokyo must bolster cooperation to deal with increasing uncertainties posed by North Korea, which may be preparing to conduct a fourth nuclear test. Opinion polls in both South Korea and Japan show that more than half of the people in both countries want bilateral relations to return to normal. The standoff, which is damaging to both sides, must come to an end.
But will Abe and his officials stop denying their country's atrocities? Will Abe stop paying homage at the militarist shrine? Will they stop accusing former sex slaves of being liars? Probably not.
An announcement planned for March 26 of revisions to school textbooks that reflect the Abe administration's lurch to the far right has been delayed to create a surface climate that makes the trilateral summit possible. But they will eventually be announced. Abe and his government must not interpret Seoul's decision to participate in the three-way meeting as carte blanche.
Korea and China ended up joining hands in criticizing Japan for shirking its historical responsibilities, and that has inevitably alarmed the U.S., which sees its regional strategic interests under threat. The trilateral summit will be a tricky balancing act. Seoul needs to make sure that it stands firmly behind its diplomatic principles, even as it strives to mend ties with Japan.