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Japan and South Korea pledge to move past historical disputes and strengthen ties

Japan and South Korea have agreed to move past their historical disputes and take forward their ties, in a move that could have broad implications for the region. This comes after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's recent visit to Seoul, which was the first visit by a Japanese leader in 12 years. The visit followed a trip to Japan in March by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, which has been dubbed “shuttle diplomacy”.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida

Despite differences over Japan’s wartime actions, which remain an emotive issue in South Korea and China, President Yoon has risked domestic political fallout by making a case for moving forward and arguing that while historical issues continue to be resolved, relations still needed to look to the future. To that end, both sides in March agreed to come up with a fund to compensate South Koreans who suffered under Japanese forced labour programmes.

“For me personally, my heart hurts when I think of the many people who endured terrible suffering and grief under the difficult circumstances of the time,” Mr. Kishida said on Sunday, expressing regret but stopping short of an apology, which many Koreans have been expecting.

The compensation will be paid by a joint fund, and not, as many in South Korea had demanded, funded entirely by Japanese companies, two of which had, in 2018, faced legal action in South Korea over their record during the 1910-45 occupation. Tens of thousands of Korean women were also forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army.

Mr. Yoon’s March trip broke the ice and took forward a rapprochement that both leaders have backed strongly. The current visit has seen both sides explore closer economic and defence ties. The Japanese leader also invited Mr. Yoon to the G-7 Summit to be hosted in Tokyo later this month, which would have been an unlikely prospect in the recent past.

However, given the weight of history, hurdles remain. “Japanese leaders have long repeated the mantra that everything had already been settled through the 1965 deal and refused to offer a formal apology in specific terms about Japan’s wartime crimes against Koreans,” the Korea Herald said in a Sunday editorial.

“In fact, Kishida and his predecessors have reflected the general sentiment of the Japanese people, many of whom are hostile toward Korea for demanding an apology and compensation. For Koreans, it is hard to understand why Japan refuses to face its own past filled with violent aggression... Kishida also needs to clear bilateral obstacles in other fields, such as restoring Korea’s white list status in trade, before accelerating shuttle diplomacy to jointly confront North Korea’s nuclear missile threats....The ball is now in Kishida’s court.”

Despite these hurdles, both countries have been brought together by shared concerns not only over North Korea’s nuclear programme but also over China’s regional muscle-flexing. This renewed focus on cooperation is a positive development for the region, as Japan and South Korea are both important US allies. The improved ties could help strengthen the US-led security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region and serve as a counterbalance to China's assertive behavior in the region.

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