Japan, South Korea Seek to Deepen Cooperation, Overcome Old Disputes

Pool via REUTERS
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during their meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on May 7, 2023.

SEOUL/TOKYO, May 7 (Reuters) – Unresolved historical disputes should not block South Korea and Japan from deepening ties in the face of international crises, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said as he welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Seoul on Sunday.

The pledge by the leaders to boost cooperation has been welcomed by the United States as a way to better confront threats from North Korea and competition from China.

Kishida’s bilateral visit, the first by a Japanese leader to Seoul in 12 years, returns the trip Yoon made to Tokyo in March, where they sought to close a chapter on the historical disputes that have dominated Japan-South Korea relations for decades.

“Cooperation and coordination between South Korea and Japan are essential not only for the common interests of the two countries but also for world peace and prosperity in the face of the current severe international situation,” Yoon said in opening remarks at their meeting.

He said unresolved historical issues should not mean that no forward steps can be taken, and that he wants to make ties better than ever.

Kishida said he hoped to discuss bilateral ties as well as regional and global issues such as North Korea with Yoon.

He has invited Yoon to the Group of Seven summit set for later this month in Japan and for trilateral talks with the U.S. on the sidelines.

Kishida will also urge for trilateral talks with China as early as this year, Kyodo reported on Friday, citing multiple unnamed diplomatic sources.

“We have a lot of opportunities to cooperate when it comes to addressing the threat of North Korea” and securing a free and open Indo-Pacific, a Japanese foreign ministry official said.

The focus of the summit between the two U.S. allies is expected to revolve around security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threats, with a particular eye on American interests in the region, said Shin-wha Lee, a professor of international relations at Seoul-based Korea University.

“Their military and economic capabilities are crucial for promoting multilateral regional security cooperation, and a poor relationship between the two countries could obstruct U.S. objectives,” she said.


However, the historical differences between South Korea and Japan threaten to cast a shadow over the blossoming ties between its two leaders.

Yoon is facing criticism at home that he has given more than he’s received in his efforts to improve relations with Japan, including by proposing that South Korean businesses – not Japanese companies as ordered by a court – compensate victims of wartime labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial occupation.

South Korean officials were hopeful that Kishida will make some kind of gesture in return and offer some political support, although few observers expect any further formal apology for historical wrongs. Yoon himself has signaled he doesn’t believe Japan needs to “kneel” any more over what happened in the past.

The majority of South Koreans believe Japan hasn’t apologized sufficiently for atrocities during the occupation, Lee said. “They think that Prime Minister Kishida should show sincerity during his visit to South Korea, such as mentioning historical issues and expressing apologies,” she added.

On the other hand, Japan is taking it slow, said Daniel Russel, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.

“Kishida is being careful not to go faster than his domestic politics permit,” he added.