South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, is escorted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, ahead of their bilateral meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, in Tokyo, Japan, Thursday, March 16, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Tokyo: Japan and South Korea announced relaxed trade controls and a return of frequent reciprocal visits on Thursday, as President Yoon Suk Yeol visits Tokyo on a trip intended to rebuild ties between the neighbours.

For years, the two countries have been locked in a bitter spat over wartime forced labour.

But since his election last year, Yoon has made it clear that repairing relations with Japan is a top priority.

He has already met Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of diplomatic events, and on Thursday the pair kicked off the first full-scale summit between the countries in 12 years.

“At today’s summit, I believe that there will be fruitful discussions that can transform Korea-Japan relations, which have been at a standstill, into a relationship of cooperation and mutually beneficial development,” Yoon said.

Kishida said the two sides had “agreed on the resumption of shuttle diplomacy by leaders of Japan and South Korea, no matter what the format” of the trips.

Japanese media said this could include Kishida inviting Yoon to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, and then visiting Seoul.

Relations deteriorated in 2018 after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate victims of wartime forced labour and their families.

But Seoul announced a plan this month to compensate Korean victims without Tokyo’s direct involvement.

In a further sign of thawing relations, Tokyo’s trade ministry said Thursday it would restore the status quo after nearly four years of restricting exports to South Korea of key industrial materials needed for semiconductors.

At the same time, South Korea announced it would withdraw a complaint filed with the World Trade Organisation.

North Korean missile

However, in a potent reminder of the security challenges that have pushed Seoul and Tokyo to try to form a united front, North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile just hours ahead of Yoon’s arrival.

Yoon said the need for cooperation was growing as the “values of liberal democracy, which have served as the basis for peace and prosperity in the international community, face serious challenges”.

“As seen from North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile launch this morning before I left for Tokyo, North Korea’s ever-increasing nuclear missile threat poses a great threat to peace and stability,” he said.

“Korea and Japan must closely cooperate in solidarity to wisely deal with these illegal threats.”

History has loomed large in relations, particularly atrocities committed during Japan’s 35-year colonial rule, including the use of wartime sex slaves - euphemistically termed “comfort women” - and forced labour.

Japan rejected the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, arguing that colonial-era disputes had been settled in 1965, when diplomatic ties were normalised and Tokyo gave Seoul loans and economic aid equivalent to several billion dollars today.

However, Yoon’s election, and growing concerns about North Korean sabre-rattling and Chinese military power, have driven momentum for reconciliation.

“South Korea can no longer afford to keep squabbling over specific bilateral issues,” Yuki Asaba, a professor of Korean studies at Doshisha University, told AFP.

‘A bit complicated’

Following their summit on Thursday, Yoon and Kishida are expected to hold a rare joint press conference, after which the Japanese leader will host a dinner.

Local media reports said Yoon had even made a specific menu request: omurice, a Western-inspired Japanese comfort food featuring an omelette over rice.

For all the outward signs of warmer ties, the countries still face significant challenges, warned Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Ewha University.

“It is meaningful that Korea-Japan relations are finally starting to normalise, but it becomes a bit complicated in terms of outcome,” he told AFP.

“It all breaks down to at what level Prime Minister Kishida will be willing to apologise for the history.”

Japan has said it continues to endorse its historic apologies for wartime acts, but many in South Korea feel that falls short and oppose Yoon’s compensation plan.

Internationally, however, the rapprochement has been welcomed, particularly in Washington, which is keen to see two key Asian allies make up.

A desire to draw nearer to Washington may be partly motivating the diplomatic overtures to Tokyo, said Asaba, ahead of a visit by Yoon to the US capital in April.

“He is aware that South Korea fighting with Japan over bilateral issues will hamper enhancing Seoul’s relations with Washington,” he said.