Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida heads to Seoul on Sunday — the first bilateral visit in over a decade — as Seoul and Tokyo seek to mend ties in the face of growing threats from North Korea.
The East Asian neighbours, both key security allies of the United States, have long been at odds over historic issues linked to Japan’s brutal 1910 to 1945 colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula, including sexual slavery and forced labour.
But South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has made resetting ties with Japan a top priority, and was in Tokyo in March for a key fence-mending visit.
Kishida said Sunday ahead of his departure that the two leaders were working to resume their so-called “shuttle diplomacy” — paused for years during a bitter trade spat linked to the forced labour issue.
During their March summit, Kishida and Yoon agreed to end tit-for-tat trade curbs, with Kishida inviting the South Korean leader to a G7 meeting in Hiroshima this month.
Kishida said he was looking forward to “an honest exchange of views” with Yoon, “based on a relationship of trust”.
After his arrival, Kishida will visit the Seoul National Cemetery — where South Korea’s war veterans are buried — to lay flowers. He will hold talks with Yoon on Sunday afternoon.
Yoon is expected to host a dinner party at the presidential residence — likely serving Korean barbeque — and he may even cook for Kishida, according to local reports.
In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate the wartime victims of forced labour, enraging Tokyo and triggering a breakdown in ties.
But Yoon, who took office last year, has sought to bury the historical hatchet, earlier announcing a plan to compensate victims without direct involvement from Tokyo.
Kishida said Sunday that the leaders planned to hold “candid exchanges” on this topic.
Around 100 South Koreans gathered Saturday to protest Kishida’s trip.
Efforts to mend ties come as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who last year declared his country an “irreversible” nuclear power, doubles down on weapons development and testing.
The United States and South Korea have in turn been ramping up their defence cooperation, staging a series of major military exercises including two trilateral drills involving Japan this year.