Japan Data

Japan, Korea Participate in First Summit Since 2012


On March 25, trilateral talks among the leaders of Japan, South Korea and the United States were held in The Hague. Convened at the request of US President Barack Obama, the talks were the first formal meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and South Korean President Park Geun-hye since the two took office. Will this prove to be a step toward a more lasting thaw in relations between these neighbors? Here we trace some of the notable recent developments that led to this stage.

The First Japan-Korea Summit in 22 Months

US President Barack Obama called Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and South Korean President Park Geun-hye together for trilateral talks, held March 25 as part of this year’s nuclear summit in The Hague. The leaders discussed topics including North Korea and nuclear nonproliferation. This was the first summit for these three nations since November 2008, as well as the first formal meeting of the Japanese and Korean leaders since May 2012, when Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko met with President Lee Myung-bak in Beijing. The meeting in The Hague was also significant as the first time for Prime Minister Abe and President Park to engage in formal dialogue since they took office.  

Despite this progress, bilateral talks between the two Asian leaders were described as still being “some way off.” While avoiding one-on-one talks with Prime Minister Abe, President Park did make time for bilateral discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the summit.

Souring Ties

Japan-Korea relations took a turn for the worse in August 2012, when  President Lee paid a visit to the disputed islands of Takeshima (known in Korean as Dokdo). Friction over differing perceptions of the two nations’ shared history and the issue of the World War II “comfort women” have been fuelling Korea’s increasingly antagonistic stance toward Japan since President Park’s election in February 2013. The situation grew frostier still in the wake of Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December last year. 

With an eye firmly on the situation in North Korea, as well as relations with China, Washington views cooperation with its regional allies, Japan and South Korea, as essential for securing peace and stability in East Asia. On March 7, President Obama made a concerted push to thaw Japan-Korea relations when he first urged Prime Minister Abe to participate in trilateral talks. 

Then, on March 12, Abe dispatched Vice Foreign Minister Saiki Akitaka to Korea to make arrangements for the summit. Two days later, in the March 14 session of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, Abe further smoothed the waters by saying that his government did not intend to revise the so-called Kōno Statement—the 1993 declaration by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei acknowledging the Imperial Army’s coercive role in recruiting the “comfort women.” President Park publicly welcomed this announcement, moving the proposed talks in The Hague one step closer to reality.   

Cautious Optimism for the Future

Most of the discussion among the three leaders focused on the pressing topics of the ever-volatile situation in North Korea and the threat to regional security posed by nuclear proliferation, leaving the issues of comfort women and disagreements over history untouched. But while the talks did little to clear away the bad blood between the Korean and Japanese sides, there remain great hopes in the two countries—as well as in the international community—that the summit represents a vital first step toward a more permanent thaw in bilateral relations.

Key Events and Statements in Recent Japan–South Korea Relations

Date Major Event or Statement Details and Reactions
October 1998 Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō and President Kim Dae-jung jointly declare “A New Japan–Republic of Korea Partnership Towards the Twenty-first Century.” Both countries display will to build future-oriented relationship through action plans in various fields, including culture, politics, and economics. Cultural exchanges between the countries increase.
May–June 2002 Japan and South Korea jointly host the soccer World Cup tournament.  
February 2003 President Roh Moo-hyun takes office, remaining in power until February 2008. During his presidency, the TV series Gyeoul yeonga (Winter Sonata) sparks a Korean drama boom in Japan. Roh begins his presidency by reiterating the wish for a future-oriented relationship. He agrees to a series of “shuttle” summit talks with Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō. Later, he takes a more hard-line approach as diplomatic issues arise between the two countries, including disputes over the naming of the Japan Sea, the sovereignty of Takeshima, visits to Yasukuni Shrine, and Japanese history textbooks.
October 2006 Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (in his first administration) and President Roh hold a summit meeting. Despite North Korea having just carried out its first nuclear test, Roh spends almost half the summit discussing differing views of history between South Korea and Japan. Unable to reconcile their differences, the countries postpone their joint statement.
February 2008 President Lee Myung-bak takes office, remaining in power until February 2013. During his term in office, Lee regularly says that Japan should learn from Germany and apologize for its actions in World War II. Toward the end of his presidency, he takes an increasingly uncompromising stance toward Japan concerning historical issues.
August 2011 South Korea’s Constitutional Court announces rulings concerning the 1965 agreement on settlement of claims between South Korea and Japan, concluding that comfort women and Korean A-bomb victims were not covered in the agreement. The Japanese government maintains that all issues have been settled. Seoul argues that comfort women and others were not covered by the agreement.
December 2011 A Korean citizen’s group builds a statue memorializing comfort women outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The South Korean government ignores Japanese government protests.
December 2011 Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko and President Lee hold a summit meeting in Kyoto. The summit atmosphere deteriorates when Noda requests the removal of the statue and Lee asks for a more proactive approach from Japan regarding the comfort women issue.
May 2012 Prime Minister Noda and President Lee hold summit in Beijing. The South Korean Supreme Court rules that Japanese corporations are responsible for paying compensation for unpaid wages to Korean wartime forced laborers. Tokyo insists that the 1965 agreement on settlement of claims, drawn up when relations were normalized with South Korea, settled property and other claims by the people of the two countries and notes that if Japanese corporations accept the judgment, it will strike at the heart of the 1965 agreement.
August 2012 President Lee becomes the first South Korean leader to visit Takeshima. In the same month, he states that a visit to Korea by Japanese Emperor Akihito would depend on him making a sincere apology. The Japanese government proposes undertaking legal proceedings at the International Court of Justice regarding the Takeshima dispute and calls on South Korea to agree to ICJ adjudication in the matter.
February 2013 Park Geun-hye takes office as Korea’s first female president.  
March 2013 President Park states that Japan and South Korea’s historical relationship as aggressor and victim will not change even after a further thousand years of history.  
May–June 2013 President Park makes her first trip to the United States since taking office for a May summit with President Barack Obama. She then visits China in June and holds a summit with President Xi Jinping. Obama emphasizes the importance of cooperation by the United States, Japan, and South Korea in tackling North Korean issues. Park hopes that China and Russia will play roles in North Korean issues, but does not mention Japan as a partner, instead noting that Japan must have a correct perception of history for the sake of peace in Northeast Asia.
September 2013 In talks with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, President Park states that she sees no point in a Japanese–South Korean summit meeting. She also says that some Japanese leaders have no intention of apologizing and continue to insult the comfort women.  
December 2013 Prime Minister Abe makes his first visit to Yasukuni Shrine since taking office. The South Korean government and media respond angrily. Park makes no official statement, but in an end-of-year meeting with senior secretaries she notes her New Year wishes for no digging up of old wounds or actions that destroy trust between countries and harm feelings between peoples.
January 2014 A statue of An Jung-geun is built at Harbin Station in Heilongjiang, China, the site of An’s 1909 assassination of Itō Hirobumi, the Japanese Resident-General in Korea. (President Park asked President Xi to build a statue at their June 2013 summit). Tokyo announces its displeasure at actions of China and South Korea. The Chinese government states that An Jung-geun was a famous anti-Japanese hero respected by the Chinese people, adding that there is nothing wrong with establishing a memorial under Chinese domestic law and dismissing all Japanese protests.
March 2014 In a Diet committee meeting on March 14, Prime Minister Abe states that he shares the same feelings as his predecessors regarding historical understanding and the comfort women issue. He says that the 1993 Kōno Statement addresses these issues and that his cabinet has no intention to review it. Park welcomes Abe’s announcement that he will uphold the Kōno Statement, which admitted the Japanese military’s role in procuring comfort women and apologized for these actions.
March 2014 The United States, Japan, and South Korea hold a three-way summit meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the Netherlands. It is the first official summit meeting between Japanese and South Korean leaders since May 2012.  

(Originally written in Japanese on March 26. Title photo: Reuters/Aflo.)

Abe Shinzō Barack Obama South Korea history World War II compensation comfort women Park Geun-hye Takeshima summit Yasukuni