Japan, S. Korea hail spring thaw in wintry relations as they seek closer ties in security and trade

  • Japan
  • Friday, 17 Mar 2023

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Rengatei, a popular restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district, on March 16. - Reuters

TOKYO (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Japan lifted export curbs on the supply of materials for high-tech chips to South Korea on Thursday (March 16), while South Korea declared the “complete normalisation” of their bilateral military intelligence sharing deal.

These quick-fire breakthroughs came as the two countries with a difficult shared history vowed to turn the page on relations that have blown hot and cold with nearly every change in government.

Giving the impetus was the first bilateral visit by a South Korean president to Japan in 12 years.

Yoon Suk-yeol had plenty of face time with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday, as they sought to cement their friendship and kick off the so-called “shuttle diplomacy” unfettered by frequency and formality at all levels of government.

After a 90-minute summit and joint press conference, they went to the glitzy Ginza district for a dinner of sukiyaki (beef hotpot) at the high-end Yoshizawa, which opened in 1924, and then an after-party of omurice (omelette rice) at the casual Rengatei, which invented the dish in 1900.

“On this day, as cherry blossoms start to bloom in Tokyo, and we sense the arrival of spring, I am very happy to start a new chapter to build a forward-looking relationship with South Korea,” Kishida said.

Yoon, noting that the frosty relations have “directly and indirectly hurt our peoples”, described South Korea and Japan as “closest neighbours and partners” that ought to stick together through thick and thin.

After all, they share values such as freedom, human rights and the rule of law, he said, adding: “South Korea’s national interests are not a zero-sum with Japan’s national interests.”

Their detente has been cheered by mutual security ally, the United States. But it was criticised by China – the top trading partner of both countries – even as Kishida said better Japan-South Korea ties would pave the way for the restart of a trilateral leaders’ dialogue involving China.

“We oppose certain countries’ attempt to form exclusive circles,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in Beijing, adding that he hoped Japan and South Korea “can move forward in a way conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity”.

Kishida’s and Yoon’s crowded agenda involved topics as diverse as history, trade, security and culture. But further underscoring the need for cooperation was North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile into waters 250km west of Hokkaido mere hours before Yoon left for Tokyo.

Both leaders condemned the launch as needless provocation.

The new dawn comes 10 days after Yoon proposed a South Korea government-backed foundation, supported by donations from South Korean businesses, to compensate victims of wartime labour.

This was mooted as a solution for their bilateral stand-off, sparked by a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling to seize the assets of two Japanese conglomerates as compensation.

Japan refused to recognise the decision, saying that all claims related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule had been fully settled under their 1965 treaty to normalise relations. Japan paid out US$800 million (S$1 billion) in loans and economic aid, a sum that is worth US$7.65 billion in today’s terms.

Yoon’s proposal is deeply unpopular in South Korea, where the plaintiffs, crying foul, filed a fresh lawsuit in Seoul on Wednesday.

The olive branch was also not directly reciprocated by Tokyo, which has long said it will not be held hostage to apology diplomacy. Rather than acceding to hopes for a fresh apology, Kishida said on Thursday that his government stands by a 1998 bilateral declaration in which Japan offered “deep remorse” and a “heartfelt apology”.

Still, the less toxic atmosphere has allowed both countries – each other’s fourth-largest export markets – to make headway in a trade spat that just three years ago drove South Koreans to boycott Japanese products from Uniqlo clothes to Unistream pens.

On Thursday, Japan lifted curbs on the export of three sensitive materials – fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride and photoresists – used in semiconductors and light-emitting displays. The restrictions had struck at the core of South Korea’s chip industry.

Tokyo had said in July 2019 that the curbs were not a tit-for-tat move over the wartime labour dispute, instead insisting that Seoul’s lax controls were a global security issue since the material can be used for military purposes in the wrong hands.

A Japanese trade ministry official said on Thursday that Japan has assessed South Korea to have strengthened its procedures. In turn, Seoul dropped a complaint to the World Trade Organisation over the issue.

Separately, Yoon said South Korea will fully restore the General Security of Military Information Agreement (often referred to as GSOMIA) with Japan, which had nearly unravelled at the height of their feud.

This will pave the way for tighter intelligence sharing not only with Japan, but also with the US on such issues as North Korea.

Furthermore, Japan and South Korea are planning to restart a bilateral security dialogue that has been suspended since 2018, and launch a new economic security dialogue, the leaders said.

Their respective business lobby groups Keidanren and the Federation of Korean Industries agreed on Thursday to launch a fund aimed at building “future-oriented” ties through joint projects including cultural exchange.

On Friday, Mr Yoon will meet business leaders and students before returning to Seoul – though his next trip to Japan might only be two months away. Kishida is reportedly planning to invite Yoon to his hometown as an observer at the Group of Seven summit in May, before going to Seoul himself later this year.

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