Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has told South Koreans that his heart hurts when he thinks of suffering and pain during Japanese colonial rule, as Seoul and Tokyo seek to mend ties amid nuclear threats from North Korea.
Kishida’s bilateral visit on Sunday is the first by a Japanese leader to Seoul in 12 years.
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It returns the trip South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol made to Tokyo in March, as they sought to close a chapter on the historical disputes that have dominated Japan-South Korea relations for years.
Speaking to reporters at a briefing after the summit, Kishida stopped short of offering a new official apology for wrongs committed under the 1910-45 occupation, but said his government inherits the stance of earlier administrations, some of which have issued apologies.
“For me personally, my heart hurts when I think of the many people who endured terrible suffering and grief under the difficult circumstances of the time,” he said, without elaborating.
Yoon said unresolved historical issues should not mean that no forward steps can be taken to deepen ties in the face of growing international crises, and that he wants to make relations better than ever.
A senior official at Yoon’s office said Kishida’s remarks had not been arranged in advance, and Yoon thanked him for “showing his sincere position even though there was no such request” and said it would be “greatly helpful for future cooperation”.
The historical differences between South Korea and Japan threaten to cast a shadow over the blossoming ties between the two leaders.
Under Yoon and Kishida’s predecessors, relations between South Korea and Japan plunged to their lowest in decades. South Koreans accuse Japan of using forced labour during its colonial rule, among other abuses.
The dispute escalated in 2018 when South Korean courts ordered two Japanese companies to compensate some of their ageing former Korean employees for forced labour, prompting the two countries to impose tit-for-tat economic retaliatory measures.
In an effort to mend ties, Yoon has proposed that South Korean businesses – not Japanese companies – compensate the victims of wartime labour.
The move has triggered a strong backlash from some of the victims as well as criticism that Yoon has given more than he has received in his efforts to mend relations with Japan.
The focus of the new summit revolved around security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threats, said Shin-wha Lee, a professor of international relations at Seoul-based Korea University.
“Their military and economic capabilities are crucial for promoting multilateral regional security cooperation, and a poor relationship between the two countries could obstruct US objectives,” she said.
Kishida said they discussed bilateral ties as well as regional and global issues such as North Korea. He said he had agreed to allow South Korean experts to inspect the planned release of water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, which has been controversial with Japan’s neighbours concerned about possible environmental effects.
Yoon, Kishida and US President Joe Biden are expected to hold a trilateral meeting later this month on the sidelines of the Group of Seven meetings in Hiroshima to discuss North Korea, China’s assertiveness and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Yoon was invited as one of eight outreach nations.