TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said hats off to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for “making a difficult decision and action" by overcoming the troubled history between the two countries, pledging to work with him toward better future relations.
“I want to express my heartfelt respect to President Yoon for making a difficult decision and action by overcoming various (troubled) background and history between the neighbors Japan and South Korea," Kishida told a news conference Friday, one day after the two leaders held talks in their first formal summit hosted by Japan in 12 years.
The two sides seek to turn the page on the longstanding row that has divided the United States allies and form a united front driven by shared concerns over North Korea and Russia.
During Thursday's talks, the two leaders agreed to make the Japan-South Korea summit a start in resuming their “shuttle diplomacy” of regular visits, which had stalled since 2011. They also agreed to resume defense and security dialogues, and Yoon ensured full cooperation in military intelligence sharing, which Seoul had previously threatened to stop.
South Korea announced it was dropping its complaint to the World Trade Organization alleging Japan’s unfair trade practices, while Tokyo said it will lift the export controls imposed since 2019 on shipments to South Korea of high-tech goods crucial for computer-chips production.
After Thursday’s summit, Kishida escorted Yoon out to Tokyo’s posh Ginza district to treat him with his favorite dishes, including “sukiyaki” beef stew, over Japanese sake and beer.
“Last night I had great time drinking with him,” Kishida said, adding they also talked about their private life, which he said would help fostering trust on personal levels. “I hope we can push forward relations of our countries based on trust between the leaders.”
On Friday in Tokyo, Yoon told a gathering of business leaders from South Korea and Japan that the two sides should collaborate more on advanced technology, climate change and economic security.
“I think there is a lot of room for cooperation between the two countries in future high-tech new industries such as digital transformation, semiconductors, batteries, and electric vehicles,” Yoon said. “The governments of the two countries will do everything to help you interact freely and create innovative business opportunities.”
Yoon was the guest of honor at the Tokyo business roundtable over a lunch of French cuisine, attended by about a dozen business leaders from both nations.
Reiji Takehara, director of the International Cooperation Bureau at Keidanren, said the mood was very positive at Friday’s hour-and-a-half-long meeting, which was closed to media except for the opening remarks.
“There was a lot of laughter, and everyone was friendly. We didn’t sense even a tiny bit of tension,” Takehara told reporters.
The South Korean group was led by Kim Byong-joon, acting chair of the Federation of Korean Industries, the nation’s top business group, who traveled with Yoon. Executives from Samsung Electronics, Hyundai and LG were also part of the entourage.
Yoon joked about his love for Japanese food and stressed there was “light at the end of a long tunnel” of troubled relations, according to a Japanese official who briefed reporters after the meeting at Keidanren Kaikan, the headquarters of the country's top business lobby Japan Business Federation.
However, challenges remain. A 2018 South Korean Supreme Court decision ordering financial compensation from Japanese companies for forced labor during Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula targets major Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corp., both members of the Keidanren. Representatives from those companies did not attend Friday’s meeting.
Japan has refused to pay, stressing compensation issues were settled by a 1965 treaty. It also says most laborers came to Japan voluntarily, and now calls them “civilian workers,” instead of “conscripted workers.”
Yoon's announcement that local funds will be used to compensate the victims, effectively lifting pressure off the Japanese companies and hundreds of others that feared similar lawsuits, drew protests from those who suffered under Japan’s forced labor system and their advocates. They want payments from Japan and a fresh apology.
A shift toward more cordial ties between Seoul and Tokyo was strongly backed by the U.S. The White House applauded Kishida and Yoon’s meeting.
“The United States will continue, of course, to support Japan and the ROK as they take steps to translate this new understanding into enduring progress,” said White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby.
Senior members of Kishida's governing Liberal Democratic Party were supportive of Yoon's effort. Before, they were cautious about levels of South Korea's commitment to follow through with the reparation funds.
Governing lawmaker Fukushiro Nukaga, who heads the Japan-South Korea Parliamentary Friendship League, met with Yoon at a Tokyo hotel earlier Friday. He said they discussed working together to people exchanges between the two countries to further promote understanding, which would benefit both and accelerate normalization of their ties.
“I praise President Yoon's visit for putting our ties back in a right direction,” said former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is tapped as next head of the friendship group.
The Keidanren and the Federation of Korean Industry have set up a 200 million yen ($1.5 million) fund to promote exchanges among young people, Takehara said.
Under the normalization treaty in 1965, Japan provided $800 million in economic cooperation and aid, according to its Foreign Ministry.
Trade between the two countries accounts for no more than 10% of their total trade, suggesting there is room to grow. Despite friction at the government level, tourism has boomed, with travelers from each country being No. 2 in foreign visitors. So have informal cultural exchanges in the form of K-pop, anime and manga.
This story corrects the amount of funds that the Keidanren and the Federation of Korean Industry set up to 200 million yen, not $200 million.
AP writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama