South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed a range of topics including the thorny issue of the so-called “comfort women,” forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
It was their first ever one-on-one meeting with Park having previously rebuffed all summit proposals, arguing that Tokyo had yet to properly atone for its wartime past and 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
While it was unlikely to mend the many broken fences between the two neighbours, it was seen as an important step towards a more pragmatic partnership that is less encumbered by decades of rancour and bitterness.
Park began the meeting by stressing the need to “heal the wounds of the past,” and the presidential Blue House said their talks did not shy away from tough issues.
“The two leaders agreed to speed up consultations to try to quickly resolve the comfort women question,” the Blue House said, adding that Park had referred to the issue as the “biggest stumbling block” to friendly relations.
Abe also told reporters afterwards that he had agreed on the importance of resolving the problem “as early as possible.”
“We should not leave obstacles for future generations,” he said, while offering no new apology for Japan’s wartime past.
Japan maintains that the comfort women issue was settled in a 1965 normalisation agreement, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of $800 million in grants or loans to its former colony.
The summit capped a series of moves in recent weeks — prompted and pushed by their mutual military ally the United States — to normalise relations.
It was a contrast to previous meetings between the two at multilateral events which had been studies in unsmiling, stony indifference, especially on Park’s part.
Since taking office in February 2013, Park has taken a particularly strong line on the issue of compensation for Korean comfort women.
It has been a politically popular stance in South Korea where Abe remains extremely unpopular, amid suspicions that he wants to water down Tokyo’s past apologies for its wartime aggression.
But there has also been public support for a summit given the importance of the relationship between the two US military allies, who have strong trade links and a mutual interest in curbing the nuclear weapons ambitions of North Korea.
Their meeting was only confirmed days before amid reports of behind-the-scenes bickering over how Japan’s wartime sex slavery might be addressed.
“Remember this is the first summit between the two countries in nearly four years, so expectations need to be kept in check,” said Hong Hyun-Ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.
“What’s important is creating a normal channel for dialogue to pave the way for more working-level discussions and coordination,” Hong said.
The two leaders participated Sunday in a trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — the first meeting of its kind in more than three years.
In a joint statement, the leaders vowed to work together again on improving trade and security between the three largest economies in Northeast Asia.
The statement stressed the importance of “facing history squarely” but qualified that reference to old disputes by also underlining the necessity of “advancing towards the future.”