Japan, S Korea leaders look to deepen ties despite strains

·3 min read
In this photo provided by South Korea Presidential Blue House via Yonhap News Agency, South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Oct.15, 2021. Leaders of Japan and South Korea held phone talks Friday and agreed on the importance to keep communicating despite their chilly relations strained over wartime Korean laborers' compensation and other disagreements on Japan's World War II atrocities. (South Korea Presidential Blue House/Yonhap via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — The leaders of Japan and South Korea spoke by phone on Friday, saying they would look to deepen ties in the face of regional security threats despite strained bilateral relations.

Although are both military allies of the U.S. and share common concerns over North Korea and China, ties between Tokyo and Seoul have suffered over the legacy of Japan's World War II atrocities. Disagreements over compensation for wartime Korean laborers are another big problem.

Japan's new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, only spoke with Korean President Moon Jae-in after he'd spoken with a number of other world leaders, underlining the neighbors' chilly relations.

In a 35-minute phone conversation, Kishida told Moon it was essential to deepen cooperation, along with the U.S., to contend with serious security threats in the region, the Japanese foreign ministry said in a statement. The two leaders restated their commitment to security cooperation.

Moon's office said he praised Kishida for saying that he was willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that resumption of diplomacy with the North would be crucial in preventing the country from advancing its nuclear weapons program and in stabilizing the Korean Peninsula.

Kishida said North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments remain a threat to the region and that he hopes for a quick resumption of nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul deteriorated after South Korean court rulings ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to Korean laborers over their abuses during World War II. The rulings have hurt trade ties. Another sticking point is Korean “comfort women” who were sexually abused by Japan’s wartime military occupation.

Japan insists that all compensation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty normalizing relations with Seoul and that South Korean court orders to Japanese companies to pay compensation violate international law.

“Relations between Japan and South Korea continue to be in severe conditions," Kishida told reporters Friday.

Kishida urged South Korea to take “concrete, firm action” to improve communication and diplomacy between the two countries, adding he was waiting “for its move."

Moon said the two countries have different “legal interpretations” over the 1965 treaty, suggesting further discussions toward a diplomatic solution. He told Kishida the impasse over the “comfort women" issue needs to be resolved quickly, with only 14 survivors still alive, his office said.

Japan and South Korea have been trying to improve ties since President Joe Biden took office calling for stronger three-way cooperation in the face of North Korean nuclear threats and challenges posed by China.

So far, there has been little improvement. Kishida said there was no plan for an in-person summit between the two countries.

Kishida, since taking office on Oct. 4, has spoken with Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the so-called Quad nations, as well as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, among others.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.