Japan and South Korea agree to restore ties as leaders meet after years of disagreement

(CNN) South Korea and Japan’s leaders vowed to resume ties at a fence-repairing summit – the first such meeting in 12 years – as the two neighbors try to deal with North Korea’s threats and mounting concerns about China.

“From now on, I want to open a new chapter in relations between Japan and South Korea through frequent visits by both sides that are not bound by formalities,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in Tokyo after a meeting with the South Korean president Yoon Suk. Oh dear.

Reciprocal visits by Japanese and South Korean leaders have been suspended for 12 years as ties deteriorated over several issues, including a wartime labor dispute.

The shared security challenges facing both nations were apparent 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 — its fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than a year. .

During the joint statement on Thursday, Kishida said Japan and South Korea have agreed to resume bilateral security talks in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and reaffirmed the importance of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” and working together to protect the international rules-based order.

And Yoon said he agreed to “fully normalize” its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.

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

In 2019, South Korea scrapped its military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan amid a long-running dispute over forced labor by Japan during the occupation of Korea, sending ties to their lowest point in decades.

The summit between Yoon and Kishida is a critical step to mending frayed relations after decades of strife and distrust that dogged the two crucial US allies in Asia.

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

The two leaders are expected to share a dinner of sukiyaki and “omurice,” or omelette rice in English, based on Yoon’s request that he like those dishes, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported.

The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of bitterness, dating back to the Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.

The two normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes have continued to fester, particularly over colonial Japanese use of forced labor and so-called “comfort women” sex slaves.

In recent years, often tense relations have undermined the United States’ attempts to form a united front against North Korea and Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

Now the region’s two main allies for the US seem poised to turn a new page.

In another sign of goodwill, Japan and South Korea agreed ahead of the summit 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 displays to South Korea, while Seoul will withdraw its complaint about those 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 stems from growing security concerns over Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent missile tests, China’s increasingly aggressive military stance and tensions in the Taiwan Strait – an area both Tokyo and Seoul say are vitally important. importance to their respective safety.

Commenting on the summit, China’s foreign ministry said Beijing opposes what it calls “the closed and exclusive circle of individual countries,” adding that it hopes “relationships between Japan and South Korea will develop towards regional peace, stability and prosperity.”

The warming ties are welcome news for Washington, which has been pushing detente.

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

Emanuel said the US, Japan and South Korea have held more than 40 multi-level trilateral meetings in the past year — more than the previous five years combined.

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

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

“So this visit is important, it sends a strong signal that under the Yoon government, both sides are now working together much more,” Atkinson said.

Overcome disputes

The thaw in relations comes after South Korea took a major step toward resolving a long-running dispute that has sent ties to their lowest point in decades.

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

The move was welcomed by Japan and praised by the White House.

Yoon has strived to improve relations, even if it means resisting domestic public pressure on controversial, highly emotional issues such as the compensation plan.

Aside from the growing North Korean nuclear threat, China appears to have been a big factor in Yoon’s willingness to face domestic opposition over the offset deal, said Atkinson, the Seoul expert.

“The government is making it clear to the South Korean public that it is not just about Japan, but about involvement in a broader coalition of liberal democracies,” he said.

“What South Koreans view as Beijing’s bullying, the arrogant treatment of their country, as well as the crackdown on the protests in Hong Kong, threats against Taiwan, and so on, certainly set the stage for that.”

Warming ties

Even before the crucial step to settle the historic dispute, Seoul and Tokyo had shown their willingness to leave the past behind and forge closer relations.

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

Since taking office, the two leaders have embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activity to restore bilateral ties and deepen 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.

Closer alignment between the US, Japan and South Korea is an alarming development for China, which has accused Washington of leading a campaign to contain and suppress its development.

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

“If China didn’t confront India twice at the border, or the Philippines twice with the Coast Guard, or didn’t fire missiles into 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 to the reporting

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