US hopes for regular Park-Abe summit

November 5, 2015

WASHINGTON (Yonhap) — The United States hopes to see South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold talks on a regular basis, a senior American diplomat said, calling last week’s first summit between the two leaders “a significant step forward.”

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel made the remark during an Asia Society discussion in New York, stressing that trilateral cooperation between the U.S. and its two key Asian allies, Seoul and Tokyo, is important to the region and beyond.

“President Park of Korea and Prime Minister Abe of Japan held their first summit meeting. We strongly support such talks and we very much hope it becomes a regular occurrence,” Russel said during the event, held on Wednesday evening, according to video footage available at the Asia Society website.

“In their meeting, the two leaders agreed to accelerate discussions to resolve the sensitive historical issues, particularly that of the so-called comfort women, a resolution that would be particularly meaningful in 2015 because this marks the 50th anniversary of the bilateral normalization between Japan and Korea,” he said.

Monday’s meeting between Park and Abe, held on the sidelines of a trilateral regional summit that also involves China, represented the first summit between leaders of the two countries since May 2012.

Their relations have been strained significantly over historical and territorial issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea, including Tokyo’s sexual enslavement of women for its troops during World War II.

Russel said Europe was able to overcome history issues because Germany was prepared to express remorse for the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and the French and the Dutch and other neighboring countries were prepared to “accept an apology, to take yes for an answer when it came to reconciliation.”

“That’s proven much more difficult in Asia, but I think 2015 has seen significant progress. It’s been hard-won progress and there can and may be relapses, but the meeting between President Park and Prime Minister Abe in Seoul this past weekend unquestionably marked a significant step forward,” he said.

“The fact that the leaders not only focused in their private meeting on these issues, but left with a commitment to accelerate efforts to achieve enduring reconciliation I think is a cause for some optimism,” he said.

On North Korea, Russel said that looking from his experience of dealing with Pyongyang, including the time when the U.S. negotiated a 1994 denulcearization deal with Pyongyang, the communist nation is not prepared to hold serious denuclearization talks.

“I think I know what it … looks like, feels like, sounds like and smells like when the North Koreans are interested in making a deal. They can go from remarkably intransigent to remarkably cooperative and flexible in a heartbeat,” he said.

“I wake up every morning and go to bed every night checking for signs that North Korea is prepared to negotiate. Talk is cheap. We have nothing against talk. We talk to the North Koreans. But what we want is to negotiate a freeze, a rollback and ultimately an end to their nuclear program,” he said.

Russel also said the North’s strategy under leaer Kim Jong-un is fundamentally the same as that of his father and late leader Kim Jong-un.

“It is the quest for forgetfulness. They would like the world to simply forget or to accept that they are pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of international law, to recognize North Korea as a nuclear state and also to support North Korea through economic assistance and investment,” he said.

“That’s not going to happen. They’re not going to have their cake and eat it too,” Russel said.

He urged the North to honor the 2005 denuclearization deal reached in six-party talks, just as Iran, Myanmar and Cuba made strategic decisions.

Russel also said U.S. President Barack Obama was “very serious” when he said in his first inaugural address that he was prepared to shake the hand of an unclenched fist.

“We haven’t seen any fingers move on North Korea, unfortunately,” Russel said.

The diplomat also said China has a great deal of leverage over the North.

“Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is with or through China, that because North Korea really couldn’t function for more than a few days without Chinese enabling or support,” he said. But Beijing is “understandably wary of applying pressure in a way that leads to some kind of crisis and chaos,” he said.