Japanese and South Korean leaders meet to restore relations and strengthen regional security

Japan and South Korea are taking significant steps to improve relations following historical disputes and to rebuild their nations’ security and economic ties.

On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met in Tokyo on Thursday, as North Korea launched a missile and Japanese and Chinese vessels had an encounter in disputed waters.

Hours before a highly anticipated summit that day, both nations reached a deal to restore trade links and agreed to resolve a longstanding trade dispute. The 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 World Trade Organization complaints over the Japanese curbs

Starting a new chapter in international relations

Japan and South Korea have a long painful history of disputes over the 1910  Japanese colonisation of the Korean Peninsula and atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during World War II, which included forcing Korean women into prostitution as ‘comfort women’ for the occupying army. There have also been territorial disagreements over a cluster of islands. 

Ties reached rock bottom 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 are now seeking to form a united front with their mutual ally, the US, driven by shared concerns about North Korea and an increasingly powerful China.

The South Korean Trade 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 labour, and if or when the two countries will resume defence dialogues and regular leaders’ visits.

North Korea and China, mutual causes for concern

North Korean state media announced on Wednesday that the nation had carried out a new missile drill, which South Korea detected the day before.

 Pyongyang test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles in a show of force, just one day after Washington and Seoul began military drills that Kim Jong Un views as an invasion rehearsal.

The missiles launched from the southwestern coastal town of Jangyon flew across North Korea before landing in the sea off that country’s east coast, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said Tuesday’s launches don’t pose an immediate threat to its allies.

But it said the North’s recent tests highlight the “destabilising impact” of the North’s unlawful weapons programs and that the US security commitment to South Korea and Japan remains “ironclad.”

Meanwhile, China’s dispute with Japan over tiny islands in the East China Sea heated up on Thursday, as both sides accused the other of violating their maritime territory. 

This came 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 US. 

The US 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.


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