TOKYO -- Japan and South Korea agreed to resume regular visits between their leaders and take steps to resolve a trade dispute during a long-awaited summit Thursday. Japan's prime minister called their meeting a “big step” to rebuilding the two nations’ security and economic ties as they try to overcome a century of difficult history.
The summit could revise the strategic map of northeast Asia. The two U.S. allies, who have long often been at odds over their history, are seeking to form a united front, driven by shared concerns about a restive North Korea and a more powerful China.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol both stressed the importance of improved ties as they opened the summit, hours after a North Korean missile launch and encounters between Japanese and Chinese vessels in disputed waters.
LEADERS RENEW SECURITY TIES
In his opening remarks, Kishida said that the meeting will mark the resumption of regular visits between the leaders, which have been on hold for more than a decade. He told a joint news conference that the countries had agreed to resume defense dialogue and vice-ministerial strategic talks, while also restarting a process of trilateral communication among Japan, South Korea and China.
“Cherry blossoms just started blooming in Tokyo this week, and after a long winter season, in terms of our bilateral relations, Japan is now able to welcome the president of South Korea for the first time in 12 years,” Kishida said. The two leaders agreed that “reinforcement of Japan-South Korea relations is an urgent task under the current strategic environment," he added.
Yoon said Thursday's meeting “has special significance as it shows the people of both countries that South Korea-Japan relations are off to a new beginning after being plagued by various issues.” He added that the two countries that share same democratic values “are partners that must cooperate on security, economic issues and global agendas.”
“The ever-escalating threat of North Korea’s nuclear missile program poses a huge threat to peace and stability not only in East Asia but also to the (broader) international community,” Yoon said. “South Korea and Japan need to work closely together and in solidarity to wisely counter the threat.”
“South Korea’s interests are not zero-sum with Japan’s interests," Yoon said. Better bilateral relations would “greatly help both countries deal with their security crises.”
The two leaders agreed to increase cooperation in areas such as security, economy, and people to people exchanges, Yoon said.
Washington appears to have worked intensively to bring about the summit. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said his country and its two allies had about 40 trilateral meetings and he thinks cooperation in the process helped to build up trust.
The White House cheered Kishida's and Yoon’s meeting. “And 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,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
SOUTH KOREA, JAPAN REACH DEAL TO RESTORE TRADE TIES
Hours before the summit began, South Korean Trade Minister Lee Chang-yang said that Japan had agreed to lift export controls on South Korea following talks this week, and that South Korea will withdraw its complaint to the World Trade Organization once the curbs are removed.
Japan and South Korea have long had disputes over the 1910-1945 Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula and atrocities during World War II, which included forced prostitution of “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers, and territorial disputes over a cluster of islands. Ties reached a nadir when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean victims or bereaved relatives in 2018, and Japan imposed trade sanctions on South Korea shortly after.
The Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry said it acknowledged improvement in South Korea export controls during the talks and that as a result of Seoul's decision to drop the WTO case, Japan decided to drop restrictions against South Korea and restore the country to the status it had before July 2019.
Japanese export controls had covered fluorinated polyimides, which are used in OLED screens for TVs and smartphones, and photoresist and hydrogen fluoride, used for making semiconductors.
Lee's ministry said the countries will continue to discuss restoring each other to preferred trade status. The two countries also agreed to begin regular dialogues on economic security, according to Kishida.
REGION IN FLUX AS WASHINGTON, BEIJING TUSSLE FOR INFLUENCE
The summit comes as a series of dramatic events underscores what Kishida called a “severe security environment.”
Washington will welcome better Japan-South Korea ties, as feuding over historical issues has undermined a U.S. push to reinforce its alliances in Asia. The three countries began joint anti-submarine warfare drills Thursday, joined by Canada and India.
North Korean launched a missile early Thursday, just before Yoon departed for Tokyo. North Korea said Friday that the intercontinental ballistic missile launch, which was supervised by leader Kim Jong Un, was intended as a warning to the largest U.S.-South Korean joint military drills in years. China’s dispute with Japan over tiny islands in the East China Sea also heated up as both sides accused the other of violating their maritime territory Thursday. The summit follows a series of Chinese diplomatic successes in regions traditionally seen as more influenced by the U.S. Honduras announced Wednesday that it would end diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China, marking progress in Beijing's efforts to isolate the autonomously governed island, while last week Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a surprise deal to renew diplomatic ties brokered by China.
DINNER, BUSINESS TALKS FOLLOW SUMMIT
Kishida and Yoon had dinner and informal talks after the summit, according to Kishida’s office. Kishida hosted a two-part dinner serving Yoon's favorite dishes: “sukiyaki” beef stew at a Japanese restaurant, then “omu-rice,” or rice topped with omelet, at another. One of the photos released by the Japanese government showed smiling leaders toasting with beer at the second place.
The outcome of their meeting was largely welcomed by the Japanese as a first step of cooperation. “Japan and South Korea need to have their normalized relations contribute not only for themselves but for the benefit of the entire international society,” Japan's largest newspaper Yomiuri said in an editorial Friday.
Yoon faces criticism at home from people who say he compromised too much, and rallies in Seoul opposing the deal were attended by a few dozen people.
After his arrival Thursday, Yoon attended a reception hosted by the Korean Residents’ Union in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Korean residents of Japan, many of them descendants of those forcibly brought there during the war, called for better ties as relations affect their lives.
On Thursday, a powerful Japanese business lobby, Keidanren, or the Japan Business Federation, also announced that it and its South Korean counterpart have agreed to each establish private funds for bilateral projects such as youth exchanges. Keidanren said they aim to start with funding worth 100 million yen ($752,420).
A dozen business leaders traveling with Yoon are to meet their Japanese counterparts on Friday.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.
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