TOKYO (AP) — Japan and South Korea agreed on steps to resolve a trade dispute hours before a highly anticipated summit began Thursday, a sign that the two countries are making concrete progress on their bid to overcome disputes over history and rebuild their nations’ security and economic ties.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met as a North Korean missile launch and encounters between Japanese and Chinese vessels in disputed waters earlier Thursday showed what’s at stake for the two countries.
Japan and South Korea have long had disputes over the 1910-1945 Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula and atrocities during World War II, which included forced prostitution of “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers, and territorial disputes over a cluster of islands. Ties reached a nadir when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean survivors in 2018, and Japan imposed trade sanctions on South Korea shortly after.
The two countries, which have often been at odds over their history, are seeking to form a united front with their mutual ally, the U.S., driven by shared concerns about an restive North Korea and a more powerful China.
SOUTH KOREA, JAPAN REACH DEAL TO RESTORE TRADE TIES
South Korean Trade Minister Lee Chang-yang said that Japan had agreed to lift export controls on South Korea following talks this week, and that South Korea will withdraw its complaint to the World Trade Organization once the curbs are removed.
Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry said Japan acknowledged improvement in South Korea export controls during the talks and that as a result of Seoul's decision to drop the WTO case, Japan decided to drop restrictions against South Korea and restore the country to the status it had before July 2019.
Japanese export controls had covered fluorinated polyimides, which are used in organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens for TVs and smartphones, and photoresist and hydrogen fluoride, used for making semiconductors.
Lee's ministry said the countries will continue to discuss restoring each other to preferred trade status, after downgrading each other in 2019.
Other key issues at the two nations’ first summit in Japan since 2011 are how Kishida will respond to Yoon’s concessions on compensation for forced labor, and if or when the two countries will resume defense dialogues and regular leaders’ visits.
Kishida and Yoon are to have dinner and informal talks after the summit, according to Kishida’s office. Media reports said Kishida will host a two-part dinner: “sukiyaki” beef stew for a first round, then “omu-rice,” or rice topped with omelet — reportedly Yoon’s favorite dish — at another restaurant.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Korean residents of Japan, many of them descendants of those forcibly brought here during the war, called for better ties as relations affect their lives here. After his arrival Thursday, Yoon attended a reception hosted by the Korean Residents’ Union in Japan.
On Thursday, a powerful Japanese business lobby, Keidanren, or the Japan Business Federation, also announced that it and its South Korean counterpart have agreed to each establish private funds for bilateral projects such as youth exchanges. Keidanren said they aim to start with funding worth 100 million yen ($752,420).
A dozen business leaders traveling with Yoon are to meet their Japanese counterparts on Friday.
NORTH KOREA WELCOMES SUMMIT WITH MISSILE TEST
The summit comes as a series of dramatic events underscores how Northeast Asia is dividing into blocs.
A North Korean missile launch early Thursday, just before Yoon departed for Tokyo, could increase momentum for he and Kishida to move their countries closer diplomatically. The intercontinental ballistic missile was launched on a steep trajectory to avoid land and fell into open waters off Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
The test comes after a year in which North Korea has escalated its nuclear threats, and is likely intended to send a message both about the summit and simultaneous joint military exercises including the U.S., which the isolated country views as directed against it.
"The peace and stability in the region are important for the region, and we must further strengthen cooperation among allies and like-minded countries,” Kishida said, referring to the missile launch.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Japan at the summit wants to reaffirm cooperation with Seoul and Washington in responses to North Korea's missile threats.
Yoon, in a written response Wednesday to questions from foreign media including The Associated Press, said strained Korea-Japan relations must be mended as soon as possible. “I believe we must end the vicious cycle of mutual hostility and work together to seek our two countries’ common interests."
REGION IN FLUX AS WASHINGTON, BEIJING TUSSLE FOR INFLUENCE
Washington will welcome better Japan-South Korea ties, as feuding over historical issues has undermined a U.S. push to reinforce its alliances in Asia to better cope with North Korean nuclear threats and China’s rise.
China’s dispute with Japan over tiny islands in the East China Sea heated up Thursday, as both sides accused the other of violating their maritime territory after China coast guard vessels entered waters around an uninhabited island group that Japan controls and calls the Senkakus, and which Beijing also claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands. The islands are just north of Taiwan, which also claims them as its own.
The summit also follows a series of Chinese diplomatic successes in regions traditionally seen as more influenced by the U.S. Honduras announced Wednesday that it would end diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China, marking progress in Beijing's efforts to isolate the autonomously governed island, while last week Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a surprise deal to renew diplomatic ties brokered by China.
The U.S. is also making efforts to shore up regional alliances. Washington apparently worked to bring about today's summit, and Thursday began joint anti-submarine warfare drills with South Korea and Japan as well as Canada and India.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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