A flurry of developments on Thursday and Friday suggested Tokyo’s relations are on the mend with Beijing and Seoul after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invited the Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said she is open to bilateral talks, the first since she and Abe took office.
Separately, Abe was quoted as saying he will “definitely” meet with Park and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang one-on-one when he visits Seoul for a trilateral summit on Nov. 1.
“I will hold a summit with China and with South Korea when I visit South Korea,” Abe told former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, in comments Kawamura relayed to reporters.
Kawamura said he challenged Abe by saying bilateral meetings were not lined up yet, to which Abe replied: “That’s not true. I will definitely do it.”
Late Friday, a South Korean diplomatic source said Abe will arrive in Seoul on the morning of Nov. 1 and hold talks respectively with Park and Keqiang.
Arrangements are in the final stages for the trilateral summit in the afternoon the same day, the source said.
A senior Japanese government official said the dates of the Abe-Park and Abe-Li talks would be either Oct. 31 or Nov. 1.
Observers say Abe is now focusing on the diplomatic front after achieving his main domestic political aim — pushing security legislation through the Diet last month.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Abe has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Tokyo in spring. The message was contained in a letter handed to the Chinese leader by one of Abe’s allies in the ruling coalition.
Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, who is on a visit to Beijing, told reporters that he also conveyed Abe’s willingness to hold talks with Xi next month on the sidelines of economic and regional summits.
In Washington, Park said she was open to meeting one-on-one with Abe on the sidelines of the trilateral summit with China. If such a meeting took place, it would be their first bilateral talks since the leaders took office in 2013 and 2012, respectively.
“I do feel that I can have such a meeting with him,” Park said during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Thursday, on the eve of a summit with US President Barack Obama at the White House.
The trilateral summit “will be an important occasion to pursue peace and stability in Northeast Asia, as well as to improve Korea-Japan relations,” Park said.
Obama has urged Japan and South Korea, both US allies, to mend fences for the sake of regional stability. Obama brokered a trilateral summit with Park and Abe in The Hague last year on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.
“I hope this trilateral summit will provide an opportunity for Korea and Japan to clear away obstacles hindering closer bilateral ties and thus hold sincere discussions on the way forward toward a common future,” Park said.
Park said meeting Abe one-on-one would be “meaningful” if it resulted in “progress” over the long-standing issue of women and girls who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Park said only 47 such women in South Korea remain alive and most of them are now very old. “Literally, we really don’t have much time in terms of dealing with this issue and making sure that we can bring closure to their pent-up agony,” Park said.
She did not elaborate on what she meant by “progress.”
During the same event, Park also expressed hope that South Korea will join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade initiative agreed among the United States, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries. Neither China nor South Korea have been involved so far.
“I believe Korea is a natural partner for the TPP,” she said, given that Seoul has already signed trade agreements with 10 of the 12 TPP member countries.
In another sign of thawing ties, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Friday that Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani will make a three-day visit to Seoul from Tuesday and will hold talks with his South Korean counterpart on the day of his arrival.
Nakatani will be the first Japanese defense minister to visit South Korea in four years, and the first since Abe took office in December 2012.
Besides talks with South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo on Tuesday, Nakatani is scheduled to attend a welcome dinner to be held on the occasion of the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition. The exhibition is set to open Tuesday for a six-day run at Seoul Airport.