Leaders Yoon Suk-yeol and Fumio Kishida find common ground on contentious issues amid mounting regional security challenges.
Leaders of Japan and South Korea all smiled as they agreed to put aside a century of difficult history and work together to address regional security challenges.
The Tokyo summit between South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol and Japan’s Fumio Kishida — it was the first visit by a South Korean president to Japan in 12 years — highlighted how the two United States allies have been brought closer together by North Korea’s frequent missile launches and growing concerns about China’s more confident positioning on the international stage.
Just hours before Yoon arrived in Tokyo, North Korea was testing a banned ICBM, the latest in a string of launches over the past week.
The two leaders joined forces over lunch and settled on some contentious issues, agreed to resume regular bilateral visits and resume the security dialogue suspended in 2018. Yoon declared the “full normalization” of an intelligence-sharing pact known as GSOMIA, which Seoul had threatened to withdraw in 2019. They also announced the end of a nearly four-year trade dispute over some high-tech semiconductor materials.
“Strengthening Japan-South Korea ties in the current strategic environment is urgent,” Kishida told reporters at a joint press conference with Yoon after the talks.
“I hope this visit will foster trust and friendship and greatly enhance Japan-South Korea relations.”
Japanese media said the new “shuttle diplomacy” could include Kishida inviting Yoon to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May and then visiting Seoul.
Yoon pointed to the “serious threat” to international peace and security posed by the North Korean missile launches.
“Today’s meeting with Prime Minister Kishida has a special meaning to let the people of our two countries know that South Korea-Japan relations, which have been going through difficult times due to various upcoming issues, are at a new starting point,” Yoon said.
“Korea and Japan must work closely and in solidarity to deal wisely with these illegal threats.”
After their summit and press conference, Kishida hosted a dinner for Yoon, who had reportedly made a specific menu request: omurice, a Western-inspired Japanese comfort food featuring an omelette over rice.
Washington welcomed the summit and called Japan and South Korea “essential allies”.
“Enhanced Seoul-Tokyo ties will help us leverage trilateral opportunities to advance our shared regional and international priorities, including our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” a US State Department spokesman said. “We applaud Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon for this positive step forward.”
Tensions between Japan and South Korea, which was occupied by Japan between 1910 and 1945, have long undermined US-led efforts to form a united front against China and North Korea.
“The fact that President Yoon visited Japan and the two countries held a bilateral meeting – and not on the sidelines of an international forum – that alone should be commended as a possible turning point,” said Hideki Okuzono, professor of international relations at Shizuoka University.
Relations deteriorated sharply after South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ordered Japanese companies to compensate victims of wartime forced labor, but in a sign of a breakthrough for bilateral ties, Seoul this month announced a plan to reconcile victims without Tokyo’s involvement pay.
But Yoon is skeptical about the approach at home.
A Gallup Korea poll released on Friday found that 64 percent of respondents believed there was no need to improve relations with Japan unless its stance changed, while 85 percent said the Japanese government did not sorry for the colonial rule of the country history.
On Thursday, two South Korean victims of wartime forced labor filed a lawsuit demanding compensation from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, according to their representatives.
“It is significant that Korea-Japan relations are finally beginning to normalize, but in terms of the outcome, it gets a bit complicated,” Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.
“It all boils down to what level Prime Minister Kishida will be willing to apologize for the story.”
Japan has argued that colonial-era disputes from forced labor to the use of Korean women as wartime sex slaves were settled in 1965, when diplomatic relations were normalized and Tokyo granted Seoul loans and economic aid, now worth billions of dollars.
Japan has said it continues to support its historic apologies for acts of war, but many in South Korea feel that’s not enough.