Japan, S. Korea summit must overcome history to renew ties

TOKYO — South Korean and Japanese leaders will meet in Tokyo this week, hoping to resume regular visits after a gap of over a decade and overcome resentments that date back more than 100 years. The two major Asian economies and United States allies face increasing need to cooperate on challenges posed by China and North Korea, but previous rounds of diplomacy have foundered on unresolved issues from Japan’s 35-year occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul has offered Tokyo concessions on South Korean court orders for compensation over wartime forced labor, but it remains to be seen whether the South Korean public will accept reconciliation.


The AP explains what’s kept the two neighbors apart, what they’re expected to talk about, and why it matters for the region.


Japan effectively colonized the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, in a regime that imposed Japanese names and language on Koreans and conscripted many into forced labor or forced prostitution in military brothels before and during World War II. Japan gave $800 million to South Korea’s military-backed government under a 1965 accord to normalize relations, which were mainly used on economic development projects driven by major South Korean companies. A semi-government fund set up by Tokyo offered compensation to former “comfort women” when the government apologized in 1995, but many South Koreans believe that the Japanese government must take more direct responsibility for the occupation.

The two sides also have a longstanding territorial dispute over a group of islands controlled by South Korea but claimed by Japan.

Seoul and Tokyo have attempted to establish better ties before. In 2004, leaders began regular visits, but these ended in 2012 after then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islands. Tensions escalated over the past 10 years as conservative Japanese governments moved to rearm the country while stepping up attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime atrocities, and in 2018 South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate forced labor victims. In 2019, Japan, in apparent retaliation, placed export controls against South Korea on chemicals used to make semiconductors and displays used in smartphones and other high-tech devices.


South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are to hold a summit and have dinner together during Yoon’s March 16-17 visit. Though leaders have met in multilateral settings, including on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in New York in September, this is the first formal bilateral summit since a meeting in Seoul in 2015.

Kishida is expected to reaffirm Japan’s past expressions of remorse over its wartime actions.

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