SEOUL: A delegation of foreign policy aides to South Korea's president-elect met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday (Apr 26), officials said, as both of the US allies aim to mend long-strained ties.
Yoon Suk-yeol, who takes over as South Korea's president on May 10, has stated his intention to improve relations with Japan that have been plagued by disputes stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula, at a time that both face threats from North Korea.
Japan is also keen to develop relations and during the meeting Kishida said strategic cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States was now more necessary than ever, Japan said.
"There is no time to waste to improve ties between Japan and South Korea," the Japanese foreign ministry quoted Kishida as saying.
The head of the South Korean delegation, Chung Jin-suk, told reporters that they agreed with Kishida to work towards forward-looking relations and for their mutual interests.
The seven-member South Korean delegation arrived in Japan on Sunday for a five-day visit amid South Korean media speculation that Kishida could attend Yoon's inauguration.
The last time a Japanese prime minister attended a South Korean inauguration was in 2008.
Yoon has spoken of the need for leaders of the two countries to communicate and meet more often but the legacy of Japan's colonial rule and wartime occupation of Korea could still foil his efforts.
The latest issue to inflame old animosity was a South Korean court ruling that Japanese companies have to compensate South Koreans forced to work for Japan during its occupation.
In 2018, South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy to compensate the victims but the company has not done so, with Japan arguing the matter was settled under a 1965 treaty.
The issue stirred anger on both sides and threatened to damage their trade and undermine their security cooperation.
Yoon has referred to the neighbours' poor relations as “the Achilles’ heel of South Korea-US-Japan cooperation”. He and Kishida have already agreed to boost three-way ties with the United States in responding to North Korea.
The United States has long pressed its Asian allies to work together more closely, and analysts say the rising competition with China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made European countries increasingly interested in building ties in Asia.
“South Korea and Japan are the pillars in northeast Asia and their influence radiates well beyond the subregion,” Michael Reiterer, professor at the Brussels School of Governance and former European Union ambassador to South Korea, told Reuters.
“I hope the outreach by the president-elect will fall on fertile ground in Japan – there is need to rebuild trust.”