Japan, S. Korea seek forward-looking ties

Foreign ministers exchange views over history and common threat of N. Korea

Japan and South Korea, whose ties have long blown hot and cold, stressed the need to "properly manage" their differences in favour of building future-oriented ties.

Visiting South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha and her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono met for three hours in Tokyo yesterday, during which there was a frank exchange of views over history and the common threat of North Korea.

Dr Kang also paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and they reaffirmed the joint stance of maintaining pressure to make Pyongyang give up its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes.

Mr Kono told reporters that there was agreement on the need to urge China to play a larger role to ramp up pressure on North Korea, even if Beijing insists it has been doing its part in fulfilling United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The top diplomats of the two nations, both allies of the United States, met weeks after Pyongyang test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov 29 that it claims is capable of striking the US mainland.

But even as the world tightens the noose around North Korea, a Reuters report yesterday suggested that Pyongyang has been able to rake in millions of dollars in virtual currencies such as bitcoin by launching global cyber attacks.

While Japan and South Korea are on the same page when it comes to their strategy against North Korea, history remains a sore point, decades after Japan's occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Seoul has launched a five-month probe into the bilateral "final and irreversible" deal for comfort women - referring to those forced to work in military brothels during the war - that was struck on Dec 28, 2015, under the Park Geun Hye administration. The task force is set to reveal its findings on the eve of the pact's anniversary next week, South Korean media reports said. President Moon Jae In will then decide whether to retain, modify, or scrap the deal.

Under the pact, Japan offered an apology and 1 billion yen (S$12 million) to set up a foundation for those comfort women who are still alive. Even so, comfort women statues have been erected in Seoul and around the world to honour the women, much to Tokyo's chagrin.

A monument erected outside the Japanese consulate in Busan city led Tokyo to recall its ambassador.

Mr Abe and Mr Kono yesterday separately pressed Dr Kang to ensure that South Korea fulfils its end of the bargain regarding the 2015 agreement. Dr Kang, on the other hand, merely gave an update on the ongoing probe.

The two foreign ministers also discussed the controversy over Hashima Island, dubbed "Battleship Island". Japan reportedly intends to state, at a new information centre on its Unesco World Heritage Sites, that Korean labourers on the coal-rich island "supported" Japan's industrial growth. The move means it avoids using the phrase "forced labour", which South Korea insists was the case.

The island off Nagasaki was this year the subject of South Korean box office hit The Battleship Island, slammed by right-wing Japanese media as distorting historical truths. While Tokyo has said in its Unesco submission that the labourers were "forced to work under harsh conditions", it later stressed this did not mean they were "forced labour".

The two foreign ministers yesterday sought to pave the way for reciprocal visits by their leaders next year - including the possibility of Mr Abe visiting South Korea for February's Pyeongchang Olympic Games. Mr Moon is scheduled to visit Tokyo for a trilateral summit meeting also involving China that is being planned for early next year.

Dr Kang returns to Seoul today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'Japan, S. Korea seek forward-looking ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe