South Korean leader in Japan for first visit in 12 years for summit over fences | CNN



South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo on Thursday for a summit on fence repair, the first visit in 12 years as the two neighboring countries try to confront North Korea’s threats to rising concerns about China.

Those shared security challenges were clearly on display just hours before the trip when North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile into the waters off the east coast of the Korean peninsula — the fourth intercontinental ballistic missile launch in less than a year.

Japanese Chief of Cabinet Hirokazu Matsuno condemned the latest launch, calling it a “reckless act” that “threatens the peace and security of our country, the region and the international community”.

The summit between Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is a crucial step in mending frayed ties after decades of strife and mistrust that dogged the two crucial US allies in Asia.

Yoon’s office called it “an important milestone” in the development of bilateral relations.

The two East Asian neighbors have a long history of bitterness, dating back to the Japanese colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula a century ago.

The two normalized relations in 1965, but unresolved historical disputes have continued to fester, particularly over colonial Japanese use of forced labor and so-called “comfort women” sex slaves.

In recent years, often tense relations have undermined the United States’ attempts to form a united front against North Korea — and Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

Now the region’s two main allies for the US seem poised to turn a new page.

In the latest sign of goodwill ahead of the summit, Japan and South Korea agreed on Thursday to drop a trade dispute that has strained relations for years.

Japan will lift export controls on high-tech materials used for semiconductors and displays to South Korea, while Seoul will withdraw its complaint about those restrictions to the World Trade Organization.

Tokyo imposed curbs in 2019 amid rising tensions with Seoul following a decades-long row over wartime forced labour.

Last week, South Korea made progress in resolving that dispute by announcing a compensation plan that does not require Japan’s direct involvement.

Much of the rapprochement between the two neighbors stems from growing security concerns over Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent missile tests, China’s increasingly aggressive military stance and tensions in the Taiwan Strait – an area both Tokyo and Seoul say are vitally important. important for their respective safety.

The warming ties are welcome news for Washington, which has been pushing detente.

“Our cooperation, not just on the political front, but also on the strategic front, on deterrence, is what North Korea fears. It’s also what China doesn’t want to see happen,” Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, told CNN on Thursday.

Emanuel said the US, Japan and South Korea have held more than 40 multi-level trilateral meetings in the past year — more than the previous five years combined.

“That familiarity, that institutionalized dialogue and conversation, the trust building, was probably the biggest contributor” to the thawing of ties, he said.

Before leaving for Tokyo, Yoon told international media on Wednesday that “Korea and Japan must increasingly work together in this time of a polycrisis,” citing North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats and the disruption of global supply chains.

“We can’t afford to waste time letting tense relations between Korea and Japan go unattended,” Yoon said.

Under Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s relationship with Japan was “openly combative,” said Joel Atkinson, a professor specializing in Northeast Asian international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“So this visit is important, it sends a strong signal that under the Yoon government, both sides are now working together much more,” Atkinson said.

The thaw in relations comes after South Korea took a major step toward resolving a long-running dispute that has sent ties to their lowest point in decades.

Last week, South Korea announced it would compensate victims of forced labor during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 through a public foundation funded by private Korean companies — rather than asking Japanese companies to contribute to reparations.

The move was welcomed by Japan and praised by the White House.

Yoon has strived to improve relations, even if it means resisting domestic public pressure on controversial, highly emotional issues such as the compensation plan.

Aside from the growing North Korean nuclear threat, China appears to have been a big factor in Yoon’s willingness to face domestic opposition over the offset deal, said Atkinson, the Seoul expert.

“The government is making it clear to the South Korean public that it is not just about Japan, but about involvement in a broader coalition of liberal democracies,” he said.

“What South Koreans view as Beijing’s bullying, the arrogant treatment of their country, as well as the crackdown on the protests in Hong Kong, threats against Taiwan, and so on, certainly set the stage for that.”

Even before the crucial step to settle the historic dispute, Seoul and Tokyo had shown their willingness to leave the past behind and forge closer relations.

On March 1, in a speech commemorating the 104th anniversary of South Korea’s protest movement against Japan’s colonial occupation, Yoon said Japan had “transformed from a past militaristic aggressor into a partner” that “shares the same universal values.”

Since taking office, the two leaders have embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activity to restore bilateral ties and deepen their joint cooperation with Washington.

In September, Yoon and Kishida held the first summit between the two countries since 2019 in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where they agreed to improve relations.

In November, the two leaders met Biden in Cambodia at a regional summit.

Closer alignment between the US, Japan and South Korea is an alarming development for China, which has accused Washington of leading a campaign to curtail and suppress its development.

But Emanuel argued that it was Beijing’s own actions that pushed the countries together.

“If China hadn’t confronted India twice on the border, or the Philippines had clashed with the coast guard twice, or hadn’t fired missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, no one would be like that,” he said.

“This is a recent development in response to China’s constant confrontation with others.”

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