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Monday, April 15, 2024

National interest not a zero-sum game with Japan: Yoon

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Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands at a press conference held after their bilateral summit in Tokyo Thursday. It was the first time a Korean president made a visit to Japan for a bilateral summit in 12 years. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

President Yoon Suk Yeol stressed that it’s in both Korea and Japan’s national interests to normalize relations to better respond to security issues following his summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday.  
“Korea’s national interest is not a zero-sum relationship with Japan’s national interest,” said Yoon, adding that the normalization of bilateral relations will be helpful to the security of both countries in a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo.  

The two sides agreed to the normalization of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact established in 2016 and renewed annually until it was almost terminated by Seoul in 2019 in response to Tokyo’s trade curbs.

Yoon said the move comes as a part of efforts to better share information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and respond to them.  

Yoon added that if bilateral relations are normalized and advanced by resolving the issue of compensating victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor, “it will be of great help in responding to the security crisis.”  

Yoon’s first visit to Tokyo after taking office comes after Seoul announced last week its decision to pay compensation to victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor through a Korea-backed public foundation, without set contributions from Japanese companies.  

Yoon in turn said that Seoul will not exercise its right to indemnity on the forced labor issue, noting that if that happens, “all problems will return to square one.”

Kishida in turn said that Japan “positively” views Korea’s proposed solution to the forced labor issue.

Japan also lifted export restrictions imposed on Korea since 2019.

Korea simultaneously withdrew its complaint filed against Japan with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over restrictions on the export of key materials to Korea that are essential for semiconductor and display productions.  

“Korea and Japan are the closest neighbors and partners that share the universal values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law, and need to pursue common interests in security, economy and global agendas,” said Yoon.

“Today, Japan lifted export restrictions on three materials, and Korea withdrew its WTO complaint,” said Yoon.  

Yoon said the two sides also agreed to continue “close consultation” to swiftly return one another to each nation’s trade “whitelists.”

Kishida in turn said in the press conference that he will “inherit the historical awareness of previous cabinets,” including the joint declaration of 1998 adopted by Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi,  

In this landmark declaration, Obuchi acknowledged the “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule” and expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology.” Kishida didn’t repeat the exact words of the statement.  

Kishida said Yoon’s visit served as a “major first step toward restoring our bilateral ties to normal.”  

The two sides also reaffirmed the importance of resuming security consultations to better respond to North Korea threats and bolstering bilateral cooperation on economic security.  

On Thursday morning, Yoon kicked off a two-day visit to Tokyo, accompanied by first lady Kim Keon-hee, marking the first visit by a Korean president to Tokyo for a bilateral summit in 12 years.  

Yoon and Kishida held bilateral talks for 85 minutes ahead of their press conference.

The trip was an occasion to make headway on the two countries’ trade dispute which began in July 2019, after Japan unilaterally imposed export restrictions to Korea on three key chemicals — fluorinated polyimide, photoresist and hydrogen fluoride — that are essential for semiconductor and display productions.

Seoul saw Tokyo’s export restrictions as retaliation against Korea’s Supreme Court rulings in 2018 ordering two Japanese companies — Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — to individually compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II.  

Tokyo maintains that a 1965 bilateral accord that normalized relations with Seoul settled all compensation matters related to Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea, and the Japanese companies refused to comply.  

In August 2019, Japan removed Korea from its so-called “whitelist” of preferred trading partners, which it had been on since 2004. In a tit-for-tat move, Korea removed Japan from its own whitelist and filed a WTO dispute complaint against Japanese export measures.  

Seoul nearly terminated Gsomia in response to Japan’s export curbs in 2019, but the Moon Jae-in administration conditionally suspended the decision to terminate Gsomia later that year, technically leaving open the possibility that the pact could be scrapped at any time. That technicality has now been removed.  

The Korean and Japanese industry ministries held consultations from Tuesday to Thursday on the export restrictions ahead of the scheduled summit between the two countries.

Yoon said that it is “of special significance to inform the people of both countries that Korea-Japan relations, which have suffered from various pending issues, are starting anew.”

He also stressed the importance of security cooperation between the two countries in light of Pyonyang’s nuclear and missile threats.  

Just hours ahead of the South Korea-Japan summit, North Korea launched what appears to have been an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) toward the East Sea.  

“North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile threat poses a great threat not only to East Asia but also to peace and stability in the international community,” Yoon told Kishida. “South Korea and Japan should closely cooperate with solidarity to wisely deal with such illegal threats and the challenges in the international community.”

He noted that discussions that day would help “transform the stagnant relationship between Korea and Japan into a relationship of cooperation and mutually beneficial development.”

Yoon said he looks forward to “working together to open a new era in Korea-Japan relations while communicating closely.”

Kishida likewise said he looks forward to “open a new chapter for Korea-Japan relations” and reviving shuttle diplomacy between the two countries.  

He said the two sides shared views that Seoul and Tokyo should work together to strengthen communication for bilateral cooperation in various fields such as politics, economy and culture.  

Regarding North Korea, Kishida called for trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan.  

The two leaders had dinner later Thursday.  

Also on Thursday, the business lobbies of the two countries – the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) – announced that they will each create a “future partnership” fund to support youths and cooperation projects. This is a part of the two countries’ broader efforts to resolve Japan’s wartime forced labor issue and strengthen economic ties.

Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are members of Keidanren, but it is unclear if these companies will make contributions to the fund.  

Some victims and civic groups have strongly protested the third-party compensation method proposed by the Korean government, saying that the plan does not include an apology, nor direct contributions, from the liable Japanese companies.

The last Japanese prime minister to visit Seoul for a bilateral summit was Yoshihiko Noda in October 2011, and President Lee Myung-bak made a return bilateral visit to Tokyo in December 2011.  

President Moon Jae-in visited Japan four years ago to attend the G20 summit in Osaka in June 2019. However, he did not hold a bilateral summit with then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Yoon and Kishida previously met during multilateral forums, holding bilateral talks in September 2022 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and during Asean meetings last November in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  

Earlier in the afternoon, the presidential couple met with Koreans living in Tokyo.  

During the luncheon meeting, Yoon said, “I don’t think a responsible politician should use the Korea-Japan issue for domestic politics.”

He stressed that the reason for improving Korea-Japan relations, including resolving the forced labor issue, was a “difficult but natural decision.”

He said two countries should normalize relations because of these overseas compatriots, noting, “If the relationship between Korea and Japan is uncomfortable or worsens, it will be difficult for our compatriots.”

“As the head of the government, I apologize to our compatriots,” Yoon said. “I will lead Korea-Japan relations with a bold heart in the future.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]