Outside Japan’s embassy in Seoul sits a statue of a diminutive Korean girl -- a symbol of the animosity that divides the U.S.’s Asian allies decades after World War II.
The monument commemorates thousands of women forced by the Imperial Army into sexual servitude during Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula. While the leaders of Japan and South Korea haven’t held a formal summit since coming into office, there are signs of a thaw in relations.
President Park Geun Hye will attend the Seoul commemoration Monday of five decades of diplomatic ties with Japan after her foreign minister visited Tokyo for talks over the weekend for the first time since she came to power in 2013. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will go to a similar ceremony in Tokyo.
“Together with President Park, I want ties to further improve over the next half century for the benefit of people in both countries and for the next generation,” Abe said at the start of a meeting Monday with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se in Tokyo. “It’s important to hold frank talks with each other.”
Any improvement in relations would be welcomed by the U.S., which is looking to its allies to help contain a nuclear-armed North Korea and respond collectively to China’s regional rise.
“South Korea is taking a clear turn in direction on Japan,” said Park Cheol Hee, director of the Institute for Japanese Studies at Seoul National University. “South Korea has also reached a judgment it can’t be left behind at a time China and Japan are starting to improve relations.”
Park risks being diplomatically outmaneuvered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has moved to overcome similar historical animosities with China and has now held two meetings with President Xi Jinping. Weeks after talks with Xi in Indonesia in April, Abe traveled to the U.S. and became the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint-session of Congress. He was hosted at a state dinner by Obama.
Park was offered a more low-key meeting with Obama this month, amid signs the administration is tiring of the war issue dividing its allies. In April, senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman said the historical disputes were “frustrating” and vilification of former enemies “produces paralysis, not progress.” Park had to postpone her U.S. trip due to an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in South Korea.
The Japan-South Korea relationship faces a host of other challenges beyond the so-called comfort women. Efforts to bolster intelligence and logistics coordination between the two countries -- both within range of North Korean missiles -- have been on hold since 2012. A territorial spat over a set of islets claimed by both countries has also fueled tensions.
“I’m very disappointed the government is wavering,” said Kong Jea Su, a 91-year-old South Korean man who was forced to work in a mine in Kyushu, Japan, between 1943 and 1945. “I’ve been fortunate enough to survive, but those who didn’t would be mortified to see Korea become close to Japan without the historical issues resolved completely.”
Park has an economic imperative to improve ties because tensions have hurt trade between the nations that both rank as each others’ third-biggest trading partner. Bilateral commerce fell to $87 billion last year from $108 billion in 2011.
Korean officials have begun of late to signal a willingness to separate the historical spats from broader bilateral issues. Yun said the South Korean government would maintain a “two-track policy” of seeking better ties. His visit to Tokyo followed a meeting in May of the nations’ defense ministers -- the first since 2011.
The comfort women issue has been the thorniest dividing the two and has fueled deep public resentment toward Japan. The women will file a $20 million lawsuit against Japan in San Francisco next month, Ahn Shin Kwon, who runs a shelter for them, said by phone.
Park has demanded Japan accept responsibility for forcing women into military brothels and offer compensation to the dozens of surviving South Korean comfort women. Japan contends a 1993 government apology over the army’s conduct and the 1965 treaty normalizing ties should have settled the issue.
During Abe’s U.S. visit, a civic group flew an 86-year-old former comfort woman to Washington to try to garner U.S. attention on the issue and join protests over the visit.
Only 1 percent of South Koreans think Japan has “sufficiently” apologized for its conduct, with 96 percent saying it’s fallen short, while 65 percent of Japanese think the apologies have been adequate, according to a survey released June 18 by South Korea’s Donga Ilbo and Japan’s Asahi newspapers.
Abe -- while publicly questioning whether the Imperial Army forced the women into service -- has agreed to talks on the issue. Park said in an interview with the Washington Post earlier this month that a deal was possible. The foreign ministers agreed Sunday to aim for a three-way summit with China by the end of the year, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on its website.
Park’s government will also cooperate with Japan’s push to have 23 of its Meiji-era industrial sites obtain UNESCO World Heritage status through “harmonious talks,” the ministry said. South Korea has demanded registration recognizes some of the sites used forced Korean laborers or be blocked.
And as long as she sits staring at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the comfort-woman statue remains another roadblock to an agreement. Erected in 2011, the monument serves as the focal point of weekly anti-Japanese protests in Seoul and Japan has signaled that she must be removed as part of a broader agreement.