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Regional security

South Korea and Japan hail spring thaw amid missiles and weight of history

South Korea and Japan hail spring thaw amid missiles and weight of history
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (L) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (R) shake hands following a joint news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 16 March 2023. EPA-EFE/KIYOSHI OTA / POOL

TOKYO/SEOUL, March 16 (Reuters) - The leaders of Japan and South Korea promised to turn the page on years of animosity at a meeting on Thursday, putting aside their difficult, shared history and saying they needed to work more closely to counter regional security challenges.

The comments from South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol and Japan’s Fumio Kishida at a summit in Tokyo highlight how the two U.S. allies have been pushed closer together by North Korea’s frequent missile launches, as well as growing concern about China’s more muscular role on the international stage.

Yoon’s visit to Japan on Thursday was the first for a South Korean president in 12 years. The urgency of the regional security situation – and the threat posed by North Korea – were underscored in the hours before his arrival, when the North fired a long-range ballistic missile that landed in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

The two countries also agreed to drop an almost four-year trade dispute on high-tech materials used for chips, an issue that has dogged their relationship even as the political importance of semiconductors, and securing their supply, has increased.

“This week Tokyo saw its cherry blossom trees blooming a little earlier than usual. I’m very happy to have this opportunity to start a new chapter of a forward-looking future of Japan and South Korea relations on this day when we can feel the arrival of spring,” Kishida said as the two faced each other across a table.

The two said they would restart the previously halted “shuttle diplomacy” of regular leader visits between the countries.

“Today’s meeting with Prime Minister Kishida has a special meaning of letting the people of our two countries know that South Korea-Japan relations, which have gone through difficult times due to various pending issues, are at a new starting point,” Yoon said.

He said North Korea’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile that morning had shown the “grave threat” to international peace and stability.

 

EXPORT CURBS

Japan will remove curbs on its exports to South Korea of critical materials for smartphone displays and chips while Seoul will drop a World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint against Tokyo, officials from both sides said.

Tokyo imposed the curbs in 2019 as tensions over a decades-old row with Seoul deepened.

Yoon has said that he expects to “invigorate” security cooperation. The two leaders are preparing to confirm the restart of a bilateral security dialogue which has been suspended since 2018, Japanese broadcaster NHK reported.

The attempt for closer ties brought a rebuke from China, whose foreign ministry said it opposed the attempt by certain countries to form exclusive circles.

 

SCEPTICISM AT HOME

Behind the scenes, Japanese officials have been cautious about improving relations.

Yoon also faces scepticism at home. In a poll by Gallup Korea published Friday, 64% of respondents said there was no need to rush to improve ties with Japan if there was no change in its attitude, and 85% said they thought the current Japanese government was not apologetic about Japan’s colonial history.

Nevertheless, economic ties are strong. The two were each other’s fourth-largest export markets in 2021, according to the IMF. Japanese exports to South Korea totalled $52 billion, while South Korean exports totalled $30 billion, the data showed.

In a fresh reminder of the long-running tensions, two South Korean victims of wartime forced labour filed a lawsuit, seeking compensation from Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries 7011.T, their representatives said on Thursday.

Relations between the two, long-strained over the wartime labour issue as well as over disputed islands, and Korean girls and women forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels, made headway last week when Seoul announced a plan for its companies to compensate former forced labourers. The victims who filed the lawsuit reject that plan.

Japan’s biggest business lobby, Keidanren, said it and its South Korean counterpart, the Federation of Korean Industries, agreed to launch foundations aimed at “future-oriented” bilateral relations.

Park Hong-keun, floor leader of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party, said Yoon’s visit should not stop at “his trip down memory lane” and asked Yoon to earn a true apology and resolution from Japan on forced labour issues during his trip.

Japan said the “strategic challenge posed by China is the biggest Japan has ever faced” in a defence strategy paper released in December. Tokyo worries that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set a precedent that will encourage China to attack self-ruled Taiwan.

China’s coast guard entered waters around disputed East China Sea islets on Wednesday to counter what it called the incursion of Japanese vessels into Chinese territorial waters.

By Sakura Murakami and Ju-min Park

(Reporting by Sakura Murakami and Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo, Josh Smith, Ju-min Park and Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul; Additional reporting by Laurie Chen in Beijing; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Sharon Singleton)

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