Japan, South Korea agree to mend ties as leaders meet after years of dispute

(CNN) The leaders of South Korea and Japan have vowed to resume relations at a reparations summit – the first such meeting in 12 years – as the two neighbors seek to address threats from North Korea and growing concerns about China.

“From now on, I would like to open a new chapter in Japan-South Korea relations through frequent visits from both sides which are not bound by formalities,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told Reuters. Tokyo after meeting South Korean President Yoon Suk. Yeol.

Mutual visits by Japanese and South Korean leaders were suspended for 12 years as ties soured over several issues, including a wartime labor dispute.

The common security challenges facing the two countries were highlighted just hours before the trip when North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile into the waters off the east coast of the Korean peninsula – the fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than a year. .

During Thursday’s joint statement, Kishida said Japan and South Korea agreed to resume bilateral security talks in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats and confirmed the importance of a ” Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and work together to protect the rules-based international order.

And Yoon said he agreed to “completely normalize” his military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan.

“I think the two countries should be able to share information about and respond to North Korea’s nuclear missile launches and trajectories,” he said.

In 2019, South Korea ended its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan amid a long-running dispute over forced labor by Japan during its occupation of Korea, which has plunged ties to their lowest level in decades.

The summit between Yoon and Kishida is a crucial step in repairing frayed relations after decades of disputes and mistrust between the two crucial US allies in Asia.

Yoon’s office hailed it as “an important milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.

The two leaders are expected to share a dinner of sukiyaki and “omurice” or omelet rice in English, based on Yoon’s claim that he likes these dishes, Japanese state broadcaster NHK reported.

The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of acrimony, dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula a century ago.

The two relations normalized in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes continued to fester, particularly over Japanese colonization. use of forced labor and sex slaves known as “comfort women”.

In recent years, the often strained relationship has undermined US efforts to present a united front against North Korea – and Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

Now, the two most important allies in the region for the United States seem ready to turn over a new leaf.

In another sign of goodwill, ahead of the summit, Japan and South Korea agreed on Thursday to drop a trade dispute that has strained relations for years.

Japan will lift export controls on high-tech materials used for semiconductors and display panels to South Korea, while Seoul will withdraw its complaint about such restrictions to the World Trade Organization .

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrives at Haneda International Airport with his wife Kim Keon-hee in Tokyo on March 16, 2023.

Shared strategic interests

Much of the rapprochement between the two neighbors is driven by heightened security concerns over Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent missile tests, China’s increasingly aggressive military posture and tensions across the Straits of Taiwan – an area both Tokyo and Seoul consider vital to their respective security.

Commenting on the summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing opposes what it calls “the closed and exclusive circle of individual countries”, adding that it hopes “Japan-South Korea relations will develop towards regional peace, stability and prosperity”.

The warming of ties is good news for Washington, which encourages relaxation.

“Our collaboration not only on the political front, but on the strategic front, on the deterrence front, is what scares North Korea. It’s also what China doesn’t want to see happen,” said Rahm Emanuel, US Ambassador to Japan. , CNN told Thursday.

Emanuel said the United States, Japan and South Korea had held more than 40 trilateral meetings at various levels in the past year, more than the previous five years combined.

“That familiarity, that institutionalized dialogue and conversation, the building of trust, was probably the biggest contribution” to unfreezing ties, he said.

Under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, relations between South Korea and Japan were “openly combative”, said Joel Atkinson, a professor specializing in Northeast Asian international politics at the University. of Hankuk Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“This visit is therefore significant, sending a strong signal that under the Yoon administration, the two parties are now working in a much more cooperative manner,” Atkinson said.

Overcome conflicts

The thaw in relations comes after South Korea took an important step towards resolving a long-running dispute that has plunged ties to their lowest point in decades.

Last week, South Korea announced that it would compensate victims of forced labor under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 through a public foundation funded by private Korean companies, instead of asking Japanese companies to contribute to repairs.

This decision was welcomed by Japan and welcomed by the White House.

Yoon has worked to improve relations — even if that means fending off national public pressure over controversial and highly emotional issues like the compensation plan.

Besides the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, China appears to have been a big factor in Yoon’s willingness to deal with the domestic backlash over the compensation deal, said Atkinson, the expert in Seoul.

“The administration is making the case to the South Korean public that this is not just about Japan, this is about engaging with a broader coalition of liberal democracies,” he said.

“What South Koreans perceive as Beijing’s bullying and arrogant treatment of their country, as well as its crushing of Hong Kong protests, threats towards Taiwan, etc., have definitely set the stage for this.”

Heated ties

Even before the crucial decision to settle the historic dispute, Seoul and Tokyo had signaled their willingness to put the past behind them and foster closer relations.

On March 1, in a speech commemorating the 104th anniversary of South Korea’s protest movement against Japanese colonial occupation, Yoon said Japan was “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner” who “shares the same values universal”.

Since taking office, the two leaders have embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at repairing bilateral relations and deepening their joint cooperation with Washington.

In September, Yoon and Kishida held the first summit between the two countries since 2019 in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where they agreed to improve relations.

A closer alignment between the United States, Japan and South Korea is an alarming development for China, which has accused Washington of waging a campaign to contain and suppress its development.

But Emanuel argued that it was Beijing’s own actions that brought the countries together.

“If China didn’t face India twice on the border, or the Philippines twice with the Coast Guard, or fire missiles at Japan’s (Exclusive Economic Zone), no one would be like that,” he said.

“This is a recent development in response to China’s constant confrontation with others.”

CNN’s Emiko Jozuka and Yoonjung Seo contributed reporting

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