Lee, Abe agree to work on ties
Lee also hand delivered to Abe a one-page letter from President Moon Jae-in that called for working together to resolve the issues that have strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
The meeting between Lee and Abe lasted 21 minutes, longer than initially expected, and came as the countries struggle with intertwined history, trade and security issues. This was the highest-level meeting between officials of the two countries since South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to individually compensate South Korean victims of Japanese forced labor during World War II in October and November last year.
“The two prime ministers shared the understanding that South Korea and Japan, as important neighboring countries, can’t leave the difficult situation of bilateral relations as it is,” said South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young in a press briefing in Tokyo after the meeting.
Lee requested “various levels of dialogue and cooperation between the two countries including diplomatic channels to overcome the blocked South Korea-Japan relations as soon as possible,” Cho said.
Abe “maintained the basic position that promises between countries have to be kept and that diplomatic dialogue should continue for the resolution of the issues,” he continued.
Lee responded that Seoul “respects and has complied by” the 1965 treaty normalizing relations between South Korea on Japan and “plans to continue to do so in the future.” He also said he believes that the two countries will be able to “gather wisdom and overcome difficulties” as they have in the past.
The two sides “also shared the understanding of the importance of cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo” and trilateral cooperation involving Washington in relation to North Korea and other issues, according to Cho, who accompanied Lee on the Tokyo trip.
Lee delivered Moon’s letter to Abe, conveying the South Korean president’s congratulations for the enthronement of Japanese Emperor Naruhito as well as condolences to the Japanese people for damages inflicted by the recent Typhoon Hagibis. Abe briefly expressed thanks for the letter. This letter, according to a high-level South Korean government official, was relatively short and “emphasized the cooperation and partnership needed between South Korea and Japan as close neighbors for peace and security in Northeast Asia.”
The official added that Moon also wrote that “the two sides should have interest in and work toward an early resolution to the issues between the two countries.” Moon also wished the Japanese people well-being and prosperity in the new Reiwa era. A letter from Moon to Emperor Naruhito was earlier delivered through diplomatic channels.
Moon and Abe have not held a bilateral summit since September 2018 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, though they encountered each other at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in late June.
In July, Japan implemented export restrictions on three materials needed to produce chips and displays in South Korea, widely viewed as retaliation for the forced labor court rulings. Japan formally removed South Korea from its so-called white list of trusted trading partners the following month. South Korea has demanded a retraction of the export measures and, in turn, removed Japan from a similar list and also announced it would not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), its military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan signed in 2016. The Gsomia is set to expire on Nov. 23.
Lee told reporters after his meeting with Abe that the “unofficial, sporadic talks that have taken place between diplomats have become formalized” by the two sides, adding that he “looks forward to speeding along” such dialogues.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry statement said that Abe told Lee that relations between Seoul and Tokyo were in “a very difficult situation” and should not be left this way. Japan went on to request South Korea to “keep its promises,” in reference to the 1965 treaty to enable a return to sound relations.
Tokyo maintains that all compensation issues stemming from colonial rule were resolved with the 1965 agreement, which included an economic cooperation fund. The South Korean Supreme Court however acknowledged the illegality of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea and recognized that the individual’s right to compensation has not expired.
Naoki Okada, a Japanese deputy chief cabinet secretary, said in a briefing in the afternoon that Abe told Lee that the forced labor rulings were “in clear violation of international law” and fundamentally overturn the legal basis of bilateral relations, reported Japanese media.
The spokesman said that Abe said the countries are “important neighbors for each other” and stressed the importance of bilateral relations and ties with Washington in staying connected on the North Korea issue. Abe also said that bilateral relations “cannot be left as is,” seen as a rare remark coming from the Japanese leader.
Lee on Thursday concluded a three-day trip to Tokyo to attend the Japanese emperor’s enthronement ceremony on Tuesday and meet with Japanese political and economic figures. In June, Seoul proposed a joint fund comprised of voluntary contributions by companies from both countries to compensate the wartime forced labor victims, referred to as a one-plus-one plan, a proposal instantly rejected by Tokyo.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]