In a landmark summit, the leaders of Japan and South Korea signaled they wouldn’t let relations spin out of control even as they made little progress in resolving disputes that have plunged relations to new depths.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that cooperation was crucial in the face of regional security threats as the two began their 45-minute meeting on the sidelines of a trilateral summit hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Chengdu. Abe agreed, and said he also hoped to improve the relationship.
“In the current difficult security situation in East Asia, relations between Japan and South Korea are extremely important. South Korea is an important neighbor,” Abe told reporters after the meeting.
Disputes rooted in disagreement over whether Japan has shown sufficient contrition for its history have hurt trade and hindered cooperation between the two U.S. allies on dealing with North Korea. The leaders’ meeting came after Pyongyang signaled it may fire a long-range missile as nuclear talks with the Trump administration stall ahead of a year-end deadline for progress set by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
No breakthroughs were made and the two aired grievances but Abe and Moon indicated they wouldn’t let their relations spin out of control. Their simmering feud has raised concerns about whether their fight would hurt global supply chains and if they could cooperate with Washington as it seeks to put a check on China’s military expansion in the region and curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Japan and South Korea “are geographically, historically and culturally the closest neighbors as well as the most important, mutually beneficial partners in terms of human exchanges,” Moon told Abe. “Our relationship is one that cannot be made distant, even if there is temporarily an uncomfortable issue.”
Moon went on to urge Japan to reverse the tighter trade controls it had placed on South Korea, his spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said after the meeting. Abe said trade officials would discuss the issue. For his part, Abe called on Seoul to resolve a disagreement over South Korean court rulings holding Japanese companies liable for cases of forced labor during the 1910-1945 colonization.
The talks had been seen as a positive step that could make it easier for the two nations to bridge differences on simmering disputes that include Japan’s export curbs on goods vital to South Korea’s massive technology sector, part of which was eased last week.
The standoff has damaged trade and tourism ties, with the number of South Koreans visiting Japan in November falling by almost two thirds on the previous year, while Japan’s beer exports to its neighbor collapsed to virtually zero in October.
Under pressure from the U.S., however, South Korea last month suspended its plan to withdraw from a military information-sharing pact with Japan. Since then, there have been hints of a potential thaw in ties.
After the two countries’ trade officials met last week, Japan was reported to have relaxed some of the stricter export controls it had placed on goods sold to South Korea.
South Korea’s presidential office, however, said in a statement the measures did not resolve the problem, while Japan’s top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Monday the changes in procedures didn’t amount to a relaxation of controls.
While an improvement in relations could benefit both countries, public opinion poses a barrier to compromise. The two leaders have lost support recently, and Moon faces parliamentary elections in April.
An opinion poll published this week by Japan’s Nikkei newspaper found 70% of respondents said there was no need to hurry to improve ties with South Korea. A poll by Seoul-based Realmeter published in late November showed South Korean participation in a boycott of Japanese goods had increased to 72% from 66% two months earlier.
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Bloomberg’s Emi Urabe, Jihye Lee, Takashi Hirokawa, Emi Nobuhiro and Shinhye Kang contributed to this report.
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