Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit marks the first visit by a Japanese leader to Seoul in 12 years.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has arrived in the South Korean capital Seoul to meet with President Yoon Suk-yeol, as the two leaders seek to mend ties amid North Korea’s nuclear threat.
Kishida’s bilateral visit on Sunday was the first by a Japanese leader to Seoul in 12 years.
It returns to Yoon’s trip to Tokyo in March, where they tried to close a chapter of the historical dispute that has dominated Japan-South Korea relations for years.
“I hope to have a frank exchange of views with President Yoon based on the relationship of trust between us,” Kishida told reporters before departing for Seoul.
“Since March, there have been varying degrees of communication in areas such as finance and defense, and I plan to build on this ongoing trend.”
South Korean and Japanese officials said Yoon and Kishida would discuss North Korea’s nuclear program, South Korea-Japan economic security and overall relations, and other unspecified international issues.
South Korean officials also hope Kishida will make some kind of gesture in exchange for concessions made by the Yun government in a long-running dispute over forced labor during Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
In 2018, a South Korean court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate some elderly former South Korean employees for forced labor, prompting tit-for-tat economic retaliation and escalating the dispute.
To mend ties, Yoon proposes that Korean companies — rather than Japanese companies — compensate victims of war labor.
The move sparked a backlash from some victims and criticism of Yoon for doing more than he got in efforts to repair ties with Japan, but few observers expected further formal apologies from Tokyo for historic wrongs.
Yoon himself has said he does not see the need for this.
After a summit with Yoon in March, Kishida had said he stood by previous Japanese governments’ positions, including those expressed by Tokyo and Seoul in a landmark 1998 joint statement on improving relations, but offered no new apology . In a 1998 declaration, then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said “I feel strong remorse and apologize from the bottom of my heart” for the colonial rule.
Shin-wha Lee, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, said the new summit could focus on security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“Under the framework of the ‘Washington Declaration’ outlining plans to strengthen extended deterrence, South Korea will explore ways to strengthen cooperation with Japan,” she added.
She was referring to statements made by Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden during the South Korean leader’s state visit to Washington, D.C., last month.
The document proposes setting up a nuclear consultative group to give South Korea a better understanding of, and a voice in, U.S. contingency plans to deter and respond to any nuclear incident in the region.
A Japanese foreign ministry official said there were “many opportunities for us to cooperate” in “countering the North Korean threat” and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, U.S. analysts say Washington hopes Kishida will offer Yoon more political support for the concessions.
“White House officials expressed disappointment at Tokyo’s lukewarm response to the forced labor compensation agreement and hoped Kishida would use his upcoming visit to South Korea in early May to do more,” said Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea and chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis published last week.
Yoon, Biden and Kishida are expected to hold a trilateral meeting later this month on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima to discuss North Korea, China’s assertiveness and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Yoon was invited as one of eight outreach countries.