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Japan and South Korea renew ties in first summit in 12 years

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands following a joint news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Thursday.
Kiyoshi Ota
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Pool photo via AP
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands following a joint news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Thursday.

Updated March 16, 2023 at 1:01 PM ET

SEOUL — In their first bilateral summit in 12 years, the leaders of South Korea and Japan portrayed their meeting in Tokyo as a sort of springtime, after an extended period of frosty ties.

A potential thaw between the two key U.S. allies could yield big dividends for the Biden administration and its Asia policy.

"This week, as the cherry blossoms bloomed in Tokyo," Japanese President Fumio Kishida told reporters, "we welcomed the president of South Korea to Japan for the first bilateral visit to Japan in about 12 years after going through a long winter."

The two leaders agreed to resume reciprocal visits and security dialogues, and took steps to resolve trade disputes that erupted in 2019. They also agreed to a normalize an intelligence-sharing agreement, which South Korea had threatened to scrap.

They also discussed cooperation in dealing with North Korea, which test-launched what appears to have been an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the East Sea on Thursday, just hours before the summit.

The meeting lasted 85 minutes, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

The summit represents a gamble by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japan's Prime Minister Kishida that they can overcome historical feuds and domestic politics that have sent relations between the two neighbors — two of the region's largest economies and established democracies — to their lowest point in decades.

If things go his way, when Yoon makes a state visit to the White House next month, he could deliver an accomplishment to President Biden: mended fences with Japan.

Washington has long sought to cajole its allies into shelving their disputes and building a tripartite alliance to meet security challenges in Asia, especially from China and North Korea.

Yoon broke the ice this month by proposing a solution to a long-simmering feud dating back more than a century, when some 780,000 Koreans toiled as forced laborers in mines and factories during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula.

South Korean lawmakers and protesters hold placards during an anti-government rally denouncing South Korea's plans to compensate victims of Japan's forced wartime labor, at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 7. Seoul hopes a new plan to compensate victims may help end a historic dispute with Tokyo.
Jung Yeon-je / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
South Korean lawmakers and protesters hold placards during an anti-government rally denouncing South Korea's plans to compensate victims of Japan's forced wartime labor, at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 7. Seoul hopes a new plan to compensate victims may help end a historic dispute with Tokyo.

In several 2018 rulings, South Korea's Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate their former laborers, but the companies refused to pay. They argued that the issue had been settled when Seoul and Tokyo established diplomatic relations in 1965.

Under Yoon's proposal, a public foundation, funded by voluntary donations from South Korean and possibly Japanese companies, would compensate the victims and their families.

Japan's Prime Minister Kishida greeted the announcement as a sign of a "return to a healthy relationship between Japan and South Korea."

South Koreans are skeptical about the proposal

For the deal to succeed, the government will have to convince a skeptical South Korean public.

A recent Gallup poll showed nearly 60% of South Koreans oppose the plan. More importantly, the former forced laborers oppose it — and say they will not accept compensation from the foundation.

"The Yoon Suk Yeol government's plan goes against the ruling by the Supreme Court of South Korea," says Seoul-based lawyer Jang Yoon-mi.

"According to the South Korean civil law," she points out, "in order for a third party to compensate, the creditor — the victims in this case — needs to agree."

"I think this plan can't contribute to eventually improving relations between South Korea and Japan," Jang adds, "and will only worsen public opinion here."

Experts note that Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation has apologized to U.S. prisoners of war who were forced to work for it, and compensated Chinese forced laborers — but not Koreans.

Many South Koreans are concerned by what they see as increasing threats from North Korea and China, and would like to move on from their historical disputes with Japan — but not at the cost of sweeping past injustices under the rug.

"The Yoon Suk Yeol government is so anxious for the diplomatic achievement of mending relations with Japan that it is forcing an unfair choice upon the victims, telling them to take donations, not compensation," said Kim Young-hwan, with the Center for Historical Truth and Justice, a Seoul-based civic group.

"The visit of President Yoon to Japan is a recognition of the failure to reach an agreement" with Tokyo, argues Daniel Sneider, a Stanford University expert on U.S. foreign policy toward Asia.

Japan's uncompromising stance means that South Korea's concessions are basically unilateral, Sneider says, "and they're hoping at some point the Japanese will join in. There's no evidence that the Japanese will do that."

There are other signs of a thaw since Yoon made his proposal

At the summit, Kishida invoked statements by past leaders expressing remorse for Japan's World War II-era aggression, which includes the sexual enslavement of women from Korea, China, the Philippines and elsewhere, euphemistically known as "comfort women."

But Kishida has so far been unwilling to go beyond past statements. "This is because of domestic politics in Japan," explains Yoshihide Soeya, an international relations expert and emeritus professor at Keio University in Tokyo. "If he comes out too explicitly about the statements, that will clearly ignite some backlash from conservatives."

Thursday's summit with Yoon "could be a test case," Soeya says, for whether Kishida has emerged from the shadow of the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who took a hard line on Seoul over the forced labor issue — and pursue his own policies.

Sneider points out that the Biden administration could nudge Japan to "go the extra mile in order to make sure this [proposed solution] holds up inside Korea." But he doubts that will happen, "because the Japanese are giving the United States most of what they want already. In many ways, they're the model ally."

Soeya, though, is optimistic that there is enough consensus between administrations in Seoul and Tokyo to cut a deal. This would help, he says, to restore communication between the two governments, which have often gone through Washington in recent years rather than engaging in direct talks.

A rapprochement would mean "the U.S. now doesn't have to talk to Korea and Japan separately," he says.

"If you have this trilateral framework," he chuckles, "you can say it just once to both of us."

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 14, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misattributed a quote from Kim Young-hwan of the Center for Historical Truth and Justice to another person.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.