The leaders of Japan and South Korea were all smiles as they agreed to put aside a century of troubled history and work together to meet regional security challenges.
The Tokyo summit between South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol and Japan’s Fumio Kishida – the first visit by a South Korean president to Japan in 12 years – highlighted how the two allies of the United States have been brought closer together by the frequent missile launches from North Korea and growing concerns about China’s more assertive positioning on the international stage.
Just hours before Yoon arrived in Tokyo, North Korea fired off a banned intercontinental ballistic missile, the latest in a series of launches over the past week.
The two leaders bonded over food and agreed on a number of controversial issues, agreeing to revive regular bilateral visits and resume the security dialogue suspended in 2018. Yoon declared the “full normalization” of an intelligence-sharing pact known as GSOMIA that Seoul had threatened to withdraw in 2019. They also announced an end to a nearly four-year trade dispute over a number of high-tech materials that are used for semiconductors.
“Strengthening ties between Japan and South Korea 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 nurture trust and friendship and significantly improve 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 North Korea’s missile launches.
“Today’s meeting with Prime Minister Kishida has a special meaning to let the people of our two countries know that the relations between South Korea and Japan, which have been through difficult times due to various pending issues, are at a new starting point,” said Yoon.
“Korea and Japan must work closely together in solidarity to deal wisely with these illegal threats.”
After their summit and press conference, Kishida hosted a dinner for Yoon, who reportedly made a specific menu request: omurice, a Western-inspired Japanese comfort food with an omelette over rice.
Washington praised the summit, calling Japan and South Korea “indispensable allies”.
“Enhanced ties between Seoul and Tokyo will help us embrace trilateral opportunities to advance our common regional and international priorities, including our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said a spokesman for the US State Department. “We applaud Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon for taking this positive step forward.”
Tensions between Japan and South Korea, occupied by Japan from 1910 to 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 that the two countries held a bilateral meeting – rather than on the sidelines of an international forum – should alone be hailed as a possible turning point,” said Hideki Okuzono, a professor of international relations at the University. from Shizuoka.
Relations took a sharp turn after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate victims of wartime forced labor in 2018, but in a sign of a breakthrough for bilateral relations, Seoul this month announced a plan to pay those affected without Tokyo’s involvement .
But Yoon is met with skepticism about the rapprochement at home.
A Gallup Korea poll released Friday found that 64 percent of respondents felt there was no need to rush to improve ties with Japan if there was no change in Japan’s attitude, while 85 percent said that they thought the Japanese government was not apologizing for the colonial nature of the country. history.
According to their representatives, two South Korean victims of wartime forced labor have filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
“It is significant that relations between Korea and Japan are finally starting to normalize, but things are getting a bit complicated in terms of the outcome,” Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP news agency.
“It all comes down to what level Prime Minister Kishida will be willing to apologize to history.”
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 gave Seoul loans and economic aid worth several billion dollars today.
Japan has said it continues to endorse its historic apologies for wartime actions, but many in South Korea feel that’s not enough.