Hwang Woo yea , Shinzo Abe

South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party chairman Hwang Woo-yea, right, speaks to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at last week's talks. Pic: AP.

New faces, new spirit, but little progress as ‘comfort women’ and other issues plague talks, writes David Slatter

The latest round of Korean-Japanese diplomatic exchanges took place on Thursday in Tokyo, led by Korea’s Foreign Office diplomat Ahn Ho-Young and his Japanese counterpart Chikao Kawai. Japanese officials are hailing the talks as a success, claiming a “frank exchange of views on ways to further strengthen Japan-South Korea relations,” but despite these friendly sound-bites there is thus far no indication that any concrete progress has been made to repair the two nations’ frayed relationship.

With the dawn of a new year and new leaders on both sides, there has been subdued hope for an improvement in Korean-Japanese ties. Both sides have been talking the talk, with Korea’s incoming Park Geun-Hye calling for “reconciliation and cooperation”, and a spokesman for Japan’s Shinzo Abe saying “South Korea is Japan’s most important neighbour, with which we share values such as democracy and market capitalism”.

These statements have been followed by several diplomatic exchanges. Hwang Woo-Yea, chairman of Park’s Saenuri party, was Abe’s first official foreign visitor as Prime Minister. This was reciprocated after Ms. Park’s election victory, with Japanese dignitary Fukushiro Nukaga visiting Seoul. This diplomatic back and forth escalated and culminated Thursday with the first high-level diplomatic exchange of the new governments.

However, before this newfound mood of goodwill can show any tangible results there are several issues that must be at least discussed, if not resolved, and first amongst these is seemingly perennial controversy over Japan’s apology (or perhaps lack thereof) to Korea’s ‘comfort women’.

Shinzo Abe does not seem to be the most likely candidate to bring resolution to this problem. He has been an outspoken critic of the Kono statement (Japan’s standing apology on the matter) in the past, and has expressed that during his term in office he is open to ‘reviewing’ the statement and its legitimacy. Restraint has been urged from Seoul, Beijing, and the opposition in Tokyo, and so far Mr. Abe has yet to unequivocally denounce the Kono statement, but his suggested position highlights just how far apart the two nations are from a consensus on the issue. Abe’s attempts to backtrack come at a time that South Korea is pushing for a new, wider-ranging, unambiguous apology from Japan.

However, despite Abe’s personal position there is hope that more pragmatic concerns will force him into a more reconciliatory stance. Mutual ally the USA has made it clear that it hopes to see a “rebuilding” of ties between the two countries, with a top delegation led by diplomat Kurt Campbell scheduled to visit both nations this week to check on their progress. Former member of the White House’s National Security Council Victor Cha feels it is very likely that the delegation will remind Abe that a renouncement of the Kono statement would be a large backwards step for all concerned.

The following day Abe was once again reaffirming his commitment to improving the situation with Korea. Speaking at a cabinet news conference he told reporters of his hopes for “a relationship of trust”. Perhaps telling however, thus far Korea has yet to comment on Thursday’s discussion. It remains to be seen just how far Park and Korea will allow Japan to push ahead with this ‘relationship of trust’ before they once again renew their calls for a new apology.