South Korean President Yoon meets Japanese Prime Minister Kishida


TOKYO — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Thursday, marking the first summit in 12 years as the two biggest U.S. allies in Asia take tentative steps toward rapprochement after years of bitter lows in the relation.

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

The summit reflects South Korea’s new priority to overcome historical differences and strengthen security and diplomatic cooperation with Japan and the United States as the three seek to unite against rising threats from North Korea and China .

The meeting is also important for the United States as President Biden has highlighted the role of like-minded allies in addressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

It underscores the strategic rethinking among countries that share Washington’s concerns about China’s rise, and Japan’s key role in entrenching new groups in the Pacific in the face of China. It comes on the heels of a major submarine construction agreement between the United States, Australia and the UK; an agreement between Japan, the UK and Italy to develop new fighter jets; and a possible new security pact between the Philippines, Japan and the United States.

“To all of them [China’s] neighbors, it’s only one modus operandi: Conflict. The US has one modus operandi, with cooperation and cooperation,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, said in an interview. “What is China’s strategy in the region, other than keeping the US’ key allies divided?”

Yoon’s visit comes less than two weeks after South Korea took a groundbreaking move to resolve a compensation dispute for workers 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 ended the stalemate.

Kishida then issued a formal invitation for Yoon’s visit. Thursday’s summit signals the two governments’ willingness to thaw relations and resume regular talks, though it remains to be seen whether they can address the thorniest issues arising from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Pyongyang looms in Seoul’s mind amid growing public concern over whether they could trust Washington to protect them in the event of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Yoon will visit Washington next month for a state dinner with Biden to strengthen the alliance, which is celebrating its 70th year.

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“There is an increasing need for it [South] Korea and Japan must work together at this time of a polycrisis, with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats escalating and global supply chains disrupted,” Yoon said in a statement ahead of the trip. “We cannot afford to waste time by letting tense relations between Korea and Japan go unattended.”

To underscore Yoon’s point, North Korea on Thursday morning fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang is developing to reach the continental United States – into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

“Peace and stability in the region are important to the region and we must further strengthen cooperation between allies and like-minded countries,” Kishida said after the missile launch.

But the neighbors also face the baggage of failed previous attempts to mend their politically and historically charged relationship and address unresolved labor, territorial and trade disputes. In fact, Kishida was foreign minister when the two sides last made a major attempt to resolve a dispute over wartime compensation in 2015.

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The 2015 agreement on compensation for Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation fell apart after it failed to receive public support in South Korea.

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

Japan claims that the forced labor issue was resolved in 1965, when the two countries re-established diplomatic relations through a treaty and Japan paid $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea to “fully and definitively” settle claims arising from to settle the occupation of the peninsula. . The courts also ordered the seizure of assets of the Japanese companies in Seoul, which Tokyo called illegal.

On March 6, Seoul announced it will use local funds to pay damages to the 15 plaintiffs who won damages against the two Japanese companies. Those plaintiffs have mixed opinions about whether they would accept that money. But hundreds of other potential plaintiffs – the descendants of the workers – want to file their lawsuit.

A senior South Korean official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the sensitive issue, said the Yon administration wants to reverse Koreans’ perceptions of their dealings with Japan.

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

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

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

After meeting on Thursday, Kishida and first lady Yuko will receive Kishida Yoon and first lady Kim Keon Hee for dinner. On Friday, Yoon will meet with high-profile business leaders and South Korean and Japanese students during his two-day visit.

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