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Kishida wants to open ‘new era of friendship’ with Korea

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, shakes hands with JoongAng Holdings Chairman Hong Seok-hyun at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on Thursday. [JUN MIN-KYU]

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, shakes hands with JoongAng Holdings Chairman Hong Seok-hyun at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo on Thursday. [JUN MIN-KYU]

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he wants to “open a new era of friendship and trust” with Korea in an exclusive interview with the JoongAng Ilbo ahead of the Group of 7 (G7) summit in Hiroshima, which Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is expected to attend.

Kishida made the remarks during a special interview on the future of Korea-Japan relations with Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of JoongAng Holdings, marking the first time the Japanese prime minister granted an interview with a Korea media outlet since he took office in 2021.

While Kishida declined to specify if the two countries’ leaders plan to announce a joint declaration outlining the future of their bilateral relationship, he said Seoul and Tokyo “will pursue detailed cooperation through close solidarity and communicate this in due time.”

If Yoon and Kishida promulgate a joint declaration charting the future course of their countries’ relationship, it will come 25 years after the Korea-Japan Joint Declaration of 1998, which was made by President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Hong noted.

During the interview, Kishida also emphasized the sincerity of his comments regarding Korean suffering under Japan’s 1910-45 colonial occupation of the peninsula, which he made during his visit to Seoul earlier this month.

In his remarks at the time, Kishida said he was “heartbroken that many [Korean] people underwent very difficult and sad experiences in the harsh conditions of the time.”

His comments had a mixed reception in Korea, with some characterizing it as merely a personal expression of sadness and not an explicit apology on behalf of the Japanese government.

When Hong pressed Kishida about why his comments didn’t include the “sad remorse and sincere apology” offered by Tokyo in the 1998 declaration, Kishida said the remarks represented a “frank expression of my thoughts in my own words,” adding that they were not coordinated with the Korean government in advance.

Kishida also praised South Korea’s plan to compensate Korean forced labor victims with money from Korean companies that benefitted from the lump-sum development aid paid out by Japan under the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

“[The plan] will restore the health of the relationship between the two countries after it fell into a very difficult situation due to the [Korean] Supreme Court ruling in 2018,” Kishida said, referring to the court’s decision that ordered Japanese companies that used Korean forced labor to compensate plaintiffs who brought lawsuits.

However, Kishida declined to detail how Japanese companies might contribute to funds to be disbursed by the Korean government, saying that the Japanese government “should refrain from commenting on the response of private companies.”

Regarding Japan’s plan to release treated, but radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Kishida offered reassurances that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be reviewing the safety of the water’s release, as the agency has authority in both Korea and Japan.

While Hong pointed out that Korean public opinion is concerned that the Korean government inspection team would not be able to independently verify the safety of the plant’s treated wastewater, Kishida said that the inspection later this month “will take place under the authority of the IAEA, which is accepted by both Korea and Japan.”

Kishida also said his joint visit with Yoon to the memorial for Korean victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was his suggestion.

“As a native of Hiroshima and the host of the G7 summit, I first proposed the idea to President Yoon, and he agreed,” Kishida said.

Kishida also pushed back on speculation that Japan opposes Korea’s entry into the G7 despite it being supported by the United States, adding that membership expansion has never been discussed.

In response to a question about Japan’s ability to strike back in the event of a conflict, Kishida noted the importance of “strengthening the joint deterrence and responsive capabilities of South Korea, the United States and Japan,” especially against the rising military threat from North Korea.

Kishida added diplomacy is crucial in preempting a conflict.

“Japan’s national security strategy puts the importance of diplomacy first,” he said, adding that Japan “needs defense to protect the lives and lives of its citizens, but also pursues strong diplomacy to maintain peace and stability in the region.”

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [kim.hyunki@joongang.co.kr]