For the first time in over three years, leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea converged on Seoul for a trilateral summit. As host, South Korean Park Geun-hye also held bilateral meetings with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The reestablishment of the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit along with commitments by the leaders to once again regularize the summit process was a reward for months of South Korean diplomatic effort to restore the talks as one antidote to rising regional rivalries and conflict over historical issues in Northeast Asia. Nevertheless, the first bilateral meeting between Park and Abe failed to yield anything tangible beyond the appearance of improving relations between the two sides.
The China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit generated an impressive list of areas (from trade and investment to environment, disaster management, and nuclear safety) where the three countries are working together. Much of this work has been supported by the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, which has kept the ball rolling on inter-governmental cooperation on many functional issues such as joint environmental cooperation despite regional political tensions. The summit document also sought to use trilateral cooperation to create momentum for the institutionalization of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), a Blue House priority.
The summit also generated a procedural, but not substantive breakthrough in Japan-South Korea relations by enabling the first bilateral meeting between Park and Abe. Nevertheless, pledges to achieve a “swift agreement” on how to effectively address the “comfort women” issue belied the ongoing failure of the two governments to achieve closure. A “cold summit” result, including no joint press conference, no joint statement, and no Park-hosted lunch for Abe, reflected the ongoing political gap between South Korea and Japan, despite the re-establishment of normalized communication channels in every area of the relationship. Despite few results, many commentators were relieved that the meeting took place at all.
The run-up to the summit had made clear that there were gaps between the two sides. Having dropped resolution of the comfort woman issue as a precondition for a bilateral summit, the Park administration tried to pressure its Japanese counterparts to compromise so as to generate a positive summit result, but Japan was not ready to move forward. This was unsurprising; Abe had signaled that Japan’s past statements should be regarded as sufficient to achieve closure in his statement marking the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Park responded at the time that while his statement “did not live up to [Korean] expectations,” Korea would “take note” of Japan’s position that past statements “will remain unshakable into the future.”
This exchange opened the door to improvement in Japan-South Korea relations, even as gaps continued to exist between the two sides. Park pressured Abe on the issue in her public interview with the Mainichi Shimbun in advance of the summit in which she expressed a desire for the issue to be resolved by the end of the year. However, Park’s efforts to generate public pressure on Abe to compromise were destined to backfire, further diminishing prospects for an early resolution of the issue. South Korea’s Senior Secretary for Foreign Affairs Kim Kyou-hyun reported Park’s position that “the comfort woman issue is becoming a stumbling block for improving bilateral relations and that it must be resolved swiftly in a way that will be both acceptable to the surviving comfort women and satisfactory to the Korean public.”
Prime Minister Abe stated following the meeting that “regarding the comfort women issue, [Japanese] need to construct a future-oriented cooperative relationship without leaving obstacles for future generations,” and agreed that his administration would “accelerate talks” on the issue. However, it is not clear that renewed talks will move the two countries closer to a resolution if the issue is simply referred back to director-general level officials in the two foreign ministries, and it is doubtful that such accelerated talks will conclude by the end of the year. Those officials have already held periodic talks for over eighteen months, with no results. In the absence of political will to close remaining gaps between the two sides, the South Korea-Japan relationship will remain hobbled by history for the foreseeable future, severely limiting the potential for mutually beneficial strategic cooperation between the two countries.
Scott Snyder is coauthor with Brad Glosserman of The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States.