South Korean President Yoon to meet Japanese Prime Minister Kishida

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TOKYO – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will meet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Thursday. The summit is the first of its kind in 12 years as Asia’s two biggest US allies take cautious steps toward reconciliation after years of bitter lows in relations.

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

It is a reflection of South Korea’s new priority to overcome historical differences and strengthen defense and diplomatic cooperation with Japan and the United States as the three countries seek to unite against growing threats from North Korea and China.

The meeting was also significant for the US as President Biden emphasized the role of like-minded allies in tackling security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

It underscores a strategic reorientation among countries that share Washington’s concerns about China’s rise, and Japan’s key role in anchoring new blocs in the Pacific toward China. It comes on the heels of a major submarine-building deal between the US, Australia and the UK; Agreement between Japan, England and Italy to build new fighter planes; and a possible new defense pact between the Philippines, Japan and the United States.

“To all of them [China’s] Neighbors, it’s just one time: conflict. “The United States has a function of cooperation and cooperation,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in an interview. “What is China’s strategy in the region, rather than dividing America’s key allies?”

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Yoon’s visit comes less than two weeks after South Korea took a landmark step to settle a dispute over compensation for workers forced to work for Japanese companies in World War II with local funds. The South Korean Supreme Court ordered the Japanese companies to pay, but they refused, so the deal stalled.

Kishita makes a formal invitation to Yun’s visit. Thursday’s summit signaled the two governments are ready to sever ties and resume regular talks, though it remains to be seen whether they can overcome thorny issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Pyongyang looms large in Seoul’s mind as public concerns grow over whether Washington can be trusted to defend them in the event of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Yun will visit Washington next month for a state dinner with Biden to strengthen the alliance, which will mark its 70th year.

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“There is a growing demand [South] Korea and Japan must cooperate at this time of multiple crises, with North Korean 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 neglecting Korea-Japan relations.”

Underscoring Yun’s point, North Korea on Thursday morning launched a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang is building to reach the continental United States — in the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

“Peace and stability in the region is important to the region, and cooperation between allies and like-minded countries should be further strengthened,” Kishida said after the missile launch.

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But previous efforts by the neighbors to mend their politically and historically charged relationship and tackle unresolved labor, territorial and trade disputes have failed. In fact, Kishida was foreign minister in 2015 when the two sides made a major effort to resolve the wartime reparations dispute.

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A 2015 agreement on reparations for Korean women forced into sex slavery during the Japanese occupation fell apart after failing to gain public support in South Korea.

Then in 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies – Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel – to pay compensation to South Koreans who were forced to work in brutal conditions during World War II, often in factories and mines. These rulings spilled over into a trade and diplomatic dispute.

Japan says the forced-labor issue was resolved when the two countries restored diplomatic relations through an agreement in 1965, when Japan gave South Korea $500 million in grants and loans to “completely and finally” stem from its occupation of the peninsula. . Courts also ordered the seizure of assets of Japanese companies in Seoul, which Tokyo said was illegal.

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

A senior South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said the Yoon administration wants to change Koreans’ perception of their dealings with Japan.

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“For decades, we have morally viewed ourselves as the creditor and Japan as the creditor,” the official said. “But after the 2018 Supreme Court rulings, those roles have reversed. Korea has become a liar, changing its position as a creditor, and Japan has become a creditor that Korea has to deal with, even if Japan considers the apology complete.

The administration sees 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 we are making them follow our lead because they feel it is a burden to do so,” the official said. “In turn, from the perspective of the United States and the international community, we’re making sure that we’re open-minded about cooperating with the global community because we’re looking at the bigger picture.”

After their meeting on Thursday, Kishida and first lady Yuko Kishida will host Yoon and first lady Kim Kyon-hee for dinner. On Friday, Yoon is scheduled to meet with top business leaders and South Korean and Japanese students during his two-day visit.

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