The Hague: US President Barack Obama on Tuesday pledged his "unwavering commitment" in the face of nuclear-armed North Korea as he hosted a landmark Japan-South Korea summit.
"The US commitment to the security of both Japan and the Republic of Korea is unwavering... and a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable," Obama told the meeting in The Hague. The talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye came as Obama sought to repair strained ties betwen two of the United States` closest Asian partners.
"Over the last five years, close cooperation between the three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea," Obama said. "Our trilateral cooperation has sent a strong signal to Pyongyang that its provocations and threats will be met with a unified response," he added.
North Korea has carried out a series of short-range missile tests in recent days and threatened to take nuclear "measures" if Washington does not end what the communist state calls "provocations". But relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest ebb in years, mired in emotive issues linked to Japan`s 1910-45 colonial rule and a territorial dispute, as well as Japan`s use of South Korean "comfort women" as sex slaves in wartime brothels.
"We consider this meeting the first step in the future cooperation between Japan and South Korea," Japan`s Abe told journalists at a press conference ahead of the summit. The three-way meeting at the US ambassador`s residence in The Hague -- designed to discuss North Korean threats -- is considered a diplomatic breakthrough.
South Korean leader Park reiterated her view that the nuclear issue posed a major threat to peace and stability and that it was vital for the international community to have a united response. Although not a one-on-one encounter, the talks are a significant step forward as Park had repeatedly ruled out a summit with Abe until Tokyo demonstrates sincere repentance for "past wrongdoings."
Recent surveys in South Korea have shown that the Japanese leader is even more unpopular with South Koreans than North Korean supremo Kim Jong-Un. But prospects for a meeting between Park and Abe rose earlier this month after the Japanese leader promised to honour Tokyo`s two previous apologies over its colonial past, issued in 1993 and 1995.
Japanese politicians express exasperation at the repeated requests for contrition, pointing to numerous apologies as well as a 1965 agreement that normalised relations and included a large payment to Seoul.
The situation was exacerbated by Abe`s visit to a controversial war shrine in December that drew strong protests from South Korea and China, which also suffered during Japan`s past colonial aggression.
"The Japanese government must offer clear signals and put measures in place to restore mutual trust," Park told German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Park said recent comments by the Japanese government that it would uphold the apology statement were "reassuring" but added: "The real question is: `how serious are they?`"
The rift has been viewed with growing alarm in Washington. South Korea and Japan are the two major US military allies in Asia, and key to Washington`s strategic "pivot" to the region.