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South Korea and Japan host a bilateral summit for the first time in 12 years

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly said that Yoon rejected opposition politicians’ calls to have Japan compensate WWII-era Korean forced laborers. Yoon instead rejected suggestions that South Korea compensate the laborers, then have Japan reimburse South Korea. The translation of the Yoon quote should say "If we seek reimbursement,…" and not "if we seek compensation,…".]

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Close neighbors, affluent democracies, U.S. allies - despite having all these things in common, ties between South Korea and Japan have been so frosty that their leaders have not held a bilateral summit for 12 years; that is, until today in Tokyo. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the news is sure to be welcomed in Washington.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: After an 85-minute-long summit, President Yoon Suk-yeol and his host, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, told reporters that their two countries are beginning a new chapter. Kishida illustrated his point with a springtime metaphor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Through interpreter) This week, as the cherry blossoms bloomed in Tokyo, we welcomed the president of South Korea to Japan for the first bilateral visit in about 12 years after going through a long winter.

KUHN: The leaders announced they would resume reciprocal visits and normalize intelligence sharing. They pledged to cooperate on security challenges such as North Korea, which launched what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile just hours before the summit. But underlying problems remain, including a historical feud over Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II. The two sides had been deadlocked over the issue until this month, when South Korea unilaterally suggested a solution.

DANIEL SNEIDER: This is not an agreement.

KUHN: Daniel Sneider is a Stanford University expert on U.S. policy towards Asia.

SNEIDER: In some ways, the visit of President Yoon to Japan is a recognition of the failure to reach an agreement.

KUHN: In 2018, South Korea's Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them. The companies refused, arguing that the issue had been settled when Japan and South Korea established diplomatic ties in 1965.

SNEIDER: But President Yoon has basically made a political decision that improving relations with Japan is strategically too important to his broader agenda to let that be an obstacle.

KUHN: So South Korea proposed compensating the laborers through a Korean foundation, to which Japanese firms could contribute if they want to. The surviving forced laborers have made it clear they want to be compensated by Japan, not South Korea. Seoul-based lawyer Jang Yoon-mi says South Korea's government can't legally compensate the laborers against their will.

JANG YOON-MI: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The Yoon Suk-yeol government's plan goes against the ruling by the South Korean Supreme Court," she points out. "And as to whether this plan will advance a political and diplomatic resolution," she adds, "many people in South Korea don't think so."

A recent Gallup poll shows around 60% of South Koreans oppose Yoon's plan. The main opposition party has said Yoon should push Japan at the summit to compensate and apologize to the laborers, but Yoon dismissed that suggestion at his press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT YOON SUK-YEOL: (Through interpreter) If we seek compensation, that will return all the problems to square one.

KUHN: Yoon could use some help from Prime Minister Kishida to sell his plan at home. Kishida praised Yoon's plan as helpful, and he invoked past statements by Japan's government expressing remorse for its actions in World War II. But Yoshihide Soeya, an international relations expert at Keio University, says Kishida is not likely to go beyond past government statements.

YOSHIHIDE SOEYA: If he comes out too explicitly about the statement, that would clearly ignite some backlash from conservatives.

KUHN: Daniel Sneider wonders if the Biden administration could nudge Tokyo to do more to help Seoul sell its plan.

SNEIDER: I doubt it, actually, because Japanese are giving the Biden administration and giving the United States most of what they want already, and I mean, in many ways, they are the model ally.

KUHN: South Korea's President Yoon will head to Washington next month for a state visit with President Biden. If his gamble succeeds, Yoon may be able to offer his host something U.S. presidents have sought for decades - two Asian allies who have put aside their disputes and are ready to start working towards a U.S.-led tripartite alliance in Asia. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.