Japanese and Korean leaders seek to mend torn ties at Tokyo summit

SEOUL — Leaders of South Korea and Japan on Thursday took steps to strengthen frayed diplomatic and economic ties, but their high-profile Tokyo summit came under two shadows: the recent North Korean missile test and a new lawsuit in South Korea that could mean the dashed hopes of restoring bilateral relations.

With strong encouragement from the Biden administration, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is on a two-day state visit for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – the first by a Korean leader in 12 years – in hopes of repairing ties between them, which are struggling Two US allies had deteriorated sharply under his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who left office in 2022.

The summit resulted in some immediate progress: the two leaders agreed to resume regular visits by leaders and announced progress on resolving a uncomfortable trade dispute as they seek to end more than a century of hostility and conflict to overcome distrust.

“Korea and Japan share the same universal values ​​of freedom, human rights and the rule of law, and strive for common interests in the areas of security, economy and the global agenda,” Mr. Yoon said at his meeting with Mr. Kishida, according to a note sent by his staff to foreign reporters. “The meeting … is the first step in overcoming the unfortunate history between the two countries and ushering in a new era of cooperation.”

The two leaders agreed to restore trade ties, which were downgraded after a 2018 legal uproar over Japan’s wartime use of forced labor during its occupation of South Korea, and improve supply chain links through an “economic security dialogue.”

Japan is a key supplier of chemicals, machinery and components to South Korea’s semiconductor industry – the world’s largest supplier of memory chips. Ever since the Trump administration chose chips as a key weapon in its trade and technology offensive against China, they have become one of the most strategic industrial components in the world.

The two leaders also agreed to “fully normalize” a bilateral intelligence deal, a key concern of Washington. The deal, which was suspended during the 2018 freeze on ties, is seen as crucial in swiftly coordinating responses to North Korean provocations.

To underline the positive atmosphere, the two men dined together with their wives in Tokyo. Mr. Yoon traveled with about a dozen South Korean business leaders who planned to meet their Japanese counterparts during the visit.

Japan and South Korea have separate bilateral alliances with the United States, but no trilateral security architecture connects the three. That absence appears increasingly problematic for the US, making it difficult to side with two critical East Asian allies amid North Korea’s growing military power and China’s expanding reach.

Just before the two leaders met in Tokyo, North Korea launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile eastward from the Pyongyang region, the South Korean military said. The ICBM appeared to be Pyongyang’s most advanced long-range missile, the Hwasong-17. capable of hitting the continental United States.

The launch forced Mr. Yoon to chair a session of the National Security Council before leaving for Japan. Japanese officials said they believed the ICBM splashed in the Sea of ​​Japan after a test flight that lasted about 70 minutes.

Experts say North Korea has two reasons for the latest in a string of missile launches: to stress test its arsenal to boost deterrence, and to signal its displeasure with international political developments by attracting global attention.

Pyongyang not only condemned the Tokyo summit, but also the joint “Freedom Shield” war games between South Korea and the United States, which began on Monday.

Today’s launch was Pyongyang’s third test this week and the first ICBM test in a month.

Mr Yoon on Thursday conceded that the split between Seoul and Tokyo is not helping given the threats both face in the region.

“The ever-escalating threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear missile program poses a tremendous threat to peace and stability, not just in East Asia, but in Asia as well [broader] international community,” he said. “South Korea and Japan must work closely and in solidarity to face the threat wisely.”

“South Korea’s interests are not a zero-sum game with Japan’s interests,” he added, according to the Associated Press. Better bilateral relations would “greatly help both countries to deal with their security crises”.

I’m looking for a deal

Mr. Yoon’s meeting with Mr. Kishida is one of the rewards he received immediately after disclosing an initiative to end the dispute with Japan in 2018. On March 6, his government announced that South Korean companies would pay into a fund to compensate South Koreans forced to work in Japan’s industries at the end of World War II.

In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay 15 workers and seized the local assets of two companies, Nippon Steel and Mistubishi Heavy, to pay compensation. The move enraged Tokyo, which accused Seoul of bad faith and violating international law.

Tokyo, already angered after the Moon government unilaterally quashed an earlier bilateral agreement on “comfort women,” insisted the issue had been addressed in an earlier reparations package negotiated in 1965. This year, a bilateral deal was accompanied by a Japanese financial package for South Korea worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But despite being praised by President Biden and Mr. Kishida, Mr. Yoon’s initiative has proved unpopular with many South Koreans: around 60% oppose the deal, according to a Gallup poll.

And the question of forced labor is not over yet.

Three elderly victims have said they will not accept the money from the South Korean fund but will return in court. And in a new development, two forced laborers filed a new lawsuit against Mitsubishi today.

All of this means that Seoul’s diplomatic ploy may yet bog down on legal rocks.

“It will be difficult to say how the courts will decide,” said Shin Hee-seok, legal expert at the Transitional Justice Working Group, a South Korean NGO. “But failure to convince victims or set up a global compensation fund with contributions from the guilty Japanese companies could ravage bilateral relations.”

Source : www.washingtontimes.com

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