As Asian threats rise, Japan and South Korea hold first summit in 12 years


TOKYO — Two of the United States’ most important allies in Asia took cautious steps on Thursday to repair their years-long rocky relationship when the leaders of Japan and South Korea met in Tokyo for their first summit in 12 years.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida greeted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol with the full fanfare of a diplomatic welcome at the prime minister’s official residence. After a meeting, the two went to dinner with their wives—two dinners, in fact, to bond over one of Yoon’s favorite Japanese dishes: omurice, or fried rice topped with an omelet.

The trip was aimed at demonstrating that the two countries want to work more closely with each other and the United States to counter looming geopolitical threats of China’s economic and military rise and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But it remains to be seen whether they can move past the thorny issues that stem from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

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“It was a big step toward normalizing Japan-Korea relations,” Kishida said after their meeting, adding that he wanted to open a “new chapter.”

Yoon agreed: “The citizens of both countries have been directly or indirectly affected by the frozen relations and we believe Korea-Japan relations should be restored and developed as soon as possible.”

The meeting was also significant to the United States because President Biden has emphasized the role of allies and like-minded countries in tackling security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, Rahm Emanuel, US ambassador to Japan, said in an interview.

The United States has convened more than 40 meetings with Japan and South Korea since last year to help normalize the two countries talking again, he said.

“What is China’s strategy in the region, [other] than keeping US’ principal allies divided?” Emanuel said.

Thursday’s meeting came on the heels of other strategic groupings in the Pacific with an eye toward China, including a major submarine-building agreement between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom; an agreement between Japan, the UK and Italy to develop new fighter jets; and a potential new security pact between the Philippines, Japan and the United States.

Yoon’s visit came less than two weeks after South Korea made a landmark move to resolve a compensation dispute for laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies in World War II through a local fund. The South Korean Supreme Court had ordered the Japanese companies to pay but they refused, so the deal represented a way through the stalemate.

It was a politically risky move that drew backlash at home, but one that reflected the Yoon’s decision to try to resolve historical differences so as to play a greater role in countering global security challenges,

Underscoring their shared threats, North Korea on Thursday morning fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

After their meeting, they announced plans to restore regular “shuttle diplomacy” trips and normalize frequent meetings. The business federations of both countries announced they would contribute to funds to promote cultural exchanges between their younger generations.

They also announced they would work toward resolving a festering trade dispute and restoring their military intelligence-sharing agreement, but did not specify a timeline for either of those efforts.

Kishida, who took office in late 2021, and Yoon, elected last May, have met at international conferences and summits but this was the first time since 2011 that a South Korean or Japanese leader has visited the other in their home country.

But the neighbors also face the baggage of failed previous attempts at mending their politically and historically loaded relationship and tackling unresolved labor, territorial and trade disputes.

In fact, Kishida was foreign minister when the two sides last made a major attempt to resolve a wartime compensation dispute in 2015 over Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. It fell apart after it failed to gain public support in South Korea.

The shared security concerns call for politically difficult concessions from both countries, and Yoon made the difficult first step by offering a solution for the forced labor dispute, experts say.

“The environment surrounding Japan and South Korea is severe,” said Junya Nishino, a Keio University political science professor and expert in Japan-Korea relations. “I highly appreciate President Yoon’s decision, and I hope Prime Minister Kishida will echo his effort by Yoon and that Kishida will make decisions to restore their relationship.”

On Thursday, Kishida reiterated that Japan would adhere to a 1998 declaration between the two countries that expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” that Japan caused South Koreans during its colonial rule. His reaffirming of the previous statement fell short of the South Koreans’ hope for a “comprehensive apology.”

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Japan’s caution toward Korea’s moves is “deeply rooted in distrust in the Korean government. But … they have to invest in the conservative Yoon government and show good will,” said Park Cheol-hee, a Korea-Japan relations expert at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies who advised Yoon on Japan issues during the presidential campaign. “This is a very golden opportunity to fix our turbulent relationship between the two. If not now, when?

In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal — to compensate South Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II, often in brutal conditions at factories and mines. The rulings spilled over into a trade and diplomatic dispute.

Japan maintains that the forced-labor issue was settled in 1965, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations through a treaty and Japan paid $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea to settle “completely and finally” claims stemming from its occupation of the peninsula. . The courts also ordered the seizure of assets held by the Japanese companies in Seoul, which Tokyo called illegal.

On March 6, Seoul announced it would use local funds to pay damages to the 15 plaintiffs who had won damages against the two Japanese companies. Those plaintiffs have mixed views on whether they would accept that money. But hundreds of other potential claimants — the workers’ descendants — are looking to file their suits.

A senior South Korean official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the sensitive matter, said the Yoon administration wants to reverse a perception of Koreans when it comes to their dealings with Japan.

“For decades, we have morally viewed ourselves as the creditor and Japan as the debtor,” the official said. “But after the 2018 Supreme Court rulings, those roles reversed. Korea became a liar, a debtor who changes its stances, and Japan as a creditor that has to deal with Korea, who is being annoying even though Japan deems its apology complete.”

The administration views the March 6 announcement on the forced labor issue as a step toward changing that narrative, the official said.

“Morally, Korea has risen again. … We are making Japan think, and making them follow our lead because they feel a burden to do so,” the official said. “And in turn, from the perspective of the United States and the international community, we are confirming that we are open-minded about cooperating with the global society because we see a bigger picture.

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