Seoul, South Korea — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday, following his weekend summit in Seoul with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, urged officials to establish concrete steps to speed up security and economic cooperation with Japan.
Kishida expressed sympathy for Koreans forced into industrial slavery during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula during Sunday’s meeting, as leaders vowed to overcome historical grievances and encourage cooperation in the face of a nuclear North Korea and to strengthen other challenges.
The summit, which was the second meeting between leaders in less than two months, drew mixed reactions in South Korea. Critics, including Yoon’s liberal opponents, who control the majority in the National Assembly, said Kishida’s comments did not provide a valid apology and accused Yoon of backtracking on Japan’s past aggression while pushing to repair bilateral ties.
Others saw the summit as a sign that the two key US allies were finally moving forward after years of feuding as they strengthen their tripartite partnership with Washington.
After the summit, Yoon said Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are holding talks to implement their earlier agreement to expedite information sharing on North Korean missile tests. Yoon also said he would not rule out possible Japanese participation in future nuclear deterrent consultations between Washington and Seoul to better deal with North Korean nuclear threats.
Yoon, Kishida and President Joe Biden are expected to hold a trilateral meeting later this month on the sidelines of the Group of Seven meetings in Hiroshima to discuss North Korea and geopolitical uncertainties created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s assertive foreign policy. Although South Korea is not a G-7 country, Yoon was invited as one of eight outreach nations.
Yoon, at a meeting with his chief sectarians on Monday, instructed them to follow up on bilateral security, economic and technology cooperation and facilitating cultural and youth exchanges between the countries, which were discussed at his meeting with Kishida. Yoon’s office didn’t elaborate.
Speaking to reporters before leaving Seoul, Kishida said he hopes to further strengthen his personal relationship with Yoon and “work together to usher in a new era.”
Kishida, who met separately earlier Monday with groups of South Korean lawmakers and business leaders, stressed the need to facilitate face-to-face exchanges between the countries, which he said “would help further enhance our mutual understanding and add breadth and depth.” lend our relationships.”
Kishida’s visit to Seoul sparked a trip by Yoon to Tokyo in mid-March. It is the first exchange of visits between the heads of state and government of the countries in 12 years.
The successive summits were largely intended to resolve bitter disputes sparked by South Korean court rulings in 2018 that ordered two Japanese companies to compensate some of their former Korean employees for forced labor before the end of World War II. These decisions angered Japan, which insists all compensation issues were settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized relations.
The tussle led to the countries downgrading each other’s trade status and Seoul’s former liberal government threatening to step up a pact to swap military intelligence. Their strained ties complicated US efforts to build a stronger alliance to meet challenges from North Korea and China.
Relations thawed after Yoon’s conservative government announced in March a domestically controversial plan to use local company money to compensate forced labor victims without demanding Japanese contributions. Yoon traveled to Tokyo later that month to meet with Kishida, and the two agreed to resume senior-level visits and other talks. Their governments have since taken steps to roll back their economic retaliation.
Kishida’s trip to Seoul drew a great deal of public attention in South Korea, where many still harbor resentment over Japan’s colonial occupation.
In a news conference on Sunday, Kishida avoided a new, direct apology for the colonization but still sympathized with the Korean victims and said he personally felt “strong pain in my heart” at their ordeal, in an apparent attempt to build momentum for the improve relationships.
He reiterated that his government upholds the positions of previous Japanese governments on the colonization issue, including the landmark 1998 joint statement by then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, in which Obuchi said, “I feel acute remorse and apologies me from my heart.”
Kishida also said he and Yoon would pay respects at a memorial to Korean atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima during G-7 meetings. Addressing South Korean food safety concerns after the 2011 Japan nuclear disaster, he said Tokyo will allow South Korean experts to inspect a planned release of treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said the South Korean inspection team will be made up of experts from related government agencies and organizations and will soon hold talks with Japanese officials in preparation for their visit scheduled for May 23-24.
Bong Young-shik, an expert at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was noteworthy how Yoon’s government carefully dampened public expectations ahead of the summit, making it easier for both governments to present the outcome as substantive.
“For both the South Korean and Japanese governments, the resumption of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ is a win in itself,” he said, citing regular visits between leaders.
Yoon had been criticized at home for making pre-emptive concessions to Tokyo without receiving adequate countermeasures, and opposition politicians and some newspapers described the summit as a disappointment.
“The normalization of South Korea-Japan relations is a necessity and I support it, but not at the expense of our national interests, national dignity, history and justice,” said Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, the narrowly lost to Yoon in last year’s presidential race.
The conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper by circulation, acknowledged that Kishida’s comments were insufficient to ease South Korean frustrations over the story, but also said the summit reflected the countries’ “desperate” need for cooperation.
“South Korea and Japan need greater cooperation following recent events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s maritime assertiveness threatening its neighbors. The need to collectively respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat is greater than ever. In addition, the countries face similar challenges related to their slowing economies and declining populations,” the newspaper said.
“This is not the time to be stuck in the past.”
AP writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to the report.
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