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South Korean President Yoon to meet Japanese Prime Minister Kishida


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

Kishida, who took office in late 2021, and Yoon, 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 home country.

The summit is a reflection of South Korea’s new priority of overcoming historical differences and strengthening security and diplomatic cooperation with Japan and the United States as the three seek to unite against increasing threats from North Korea and China.

The meeting is also significant to the United States because President Biden has emphasized the role of like-minded allies in tackling 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 anchoring new groupings in the Pacific with an eye toward China. It comes on the heels of a major submarine-building agreement between the United States, Australia and the U.K.; an agreement between Japan, the U.K. and Italy to develop new fighter jets; and a potential new security pact among the Philippines, Japan and the United States.

“To all their [China’s] neighbors, it’s just one modus operandi: Conflict. The U.S. has one modus operandi, with cooperation and collaboration,” Rahm Emanuel, U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in an interview. “What is China’s strategy in the region, than keeping U.S.’ principal allies divided?”

Yoon’s visit comes less than two weeks after South Korea made a landmark move to resolve a compensation dispute for laborers who were 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 represented a way through the stalemate.

Kishida then extended a formal invite for Yoon’s visit. Thursday’s summit signals the two governments are willing to thaw relations and resume regular talks, though it remains to be seen whether they can tackle the thorniest issues that stem from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Pyongyang looms large on Seoul’s mind, amid growing anxieties among the public about whether they could trust Washington would protect them in case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Yoon will visit Washington next month for a state dinner with Biden to reinforce the alliance, which marks its 70th year.

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“There is an increasing need for [South] Korea and Japan to cooperate in this time of a polycrisis, with North Korean nuclear and missile threats escalating and global supply chains being disrupted,” Yoon said in a statement ahead of the trip. “We cannot afford to waste time while leaving strained Korea-Japan relations unattended.”

Underscoring Yoon’s point, North Korea on Thursday morning fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile which Pyongyang is developing to reach the continental United States — into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

“The peace and stability in the region are important for the region, and we must further strengthen cooperation among allies and like-minded countries,” Kishida said after the missile launch.

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

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The 2015 agreement regarding the compensation of Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation fell apart after it failed 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 compensate South Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II, often in brutal conditions at factories and mines. The rulings spilled over into a trade and diplomatic dispute.

Japan maintains that the forced-labor issue was settled in 1965, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations through a treaty and Japan paid $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea to settle “completely and finally” claims stemming from its occupation of the peninsula. The courts also ordered the seizure of assets held by the Japanese companies in Seoul, which Tokyo called unlawful.

On March 6, Seoul announced it will use local funds to pay damages to the 15 plaintiffs who had won damages against the two Japanese companies. Those plaintiffs have mixed views on whether they would accept that money. But hundreds of other potential claimants — the workers’ descendants — are looking to file their suit.

A senior South Korean official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the sensitive matter, said the Yoon administration wants to reverse a perception of Koreans when it comes to their dealings with Japan.

“For decades, we have morally viewed ourselves as the creditor and Japan as the debtor,” the official said. “But after the 2018 Supreme Court rulings, those roles reversed. Korea became a liar, a debtor who changes its stances, and Japan as a creditor that has to deal with Korea, who is being annoying even though Japan deems 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 making them follow our lead because they feel a burden to do so,” the official said. “And in turn, from the perspective of the United States and the international community, we are confirming that we are open-minded about cooperating with the global society because we see a bigger picture.”

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

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.