(News Focus) Yoon puts S. Korea-Japan relations back on track

TOKYO, March 16 (Yonhap) -- President Yoon Suk Yeol's visit to Tokyo sent a clear message that relations between South Korea and Japan are being put back on track after years of animosity over historical disputes stemming from Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The trip itself was symbolic in that it was South Korea's first bilateral presidential visit to Japan in nearly 12 years.

The announcements that followed -- from a "complete normalization" of a South Korea-Japan military intelligence-sharing pact to Tokyo's lifting of export restrictions against Seoul -- showed that Yoon intends to not only restore the relationship but also move it forward.

"This summit ... became the first step in overcoming the unfortunate history between the two countries and opening a new era of cooperation between South Korea and Japan," Yoon said at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida following their talks.

"We agreed that the two countries' peoples bore direct and indirect damage from the frozen bilateral relationship, and shared our commitment to swiftly restoring the South Korea-Japan relationship," he said.

Yoon was elected a year ago after campaigning on a pledge to repair bilateral relations that were badly frayed under the previous Moon Jae-in administration following the Supreme Court's 2018 rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean victims of forced labor during World War II.

Yoon resolved the compensation issue last week by deciding to pay the victims through a South Korean government-affiliated foundation using donations from domestic businesses, not the accused Japanese firms.

On Thursday, he went further to note that South Korea has no plans to seek reimbursement from Japan after compensating the victims.

Underlying his initiative was an awareness that strengthening security cooperation with Japan, and trilaterally with the United States, is key to countering North Korea's increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile programs.

"We, the two leaders, agreed that as a result of the two countries' governments closely communicating and putting our heads together, and through our government's announcement of a solution to the forced labor issue, a foundation has been established for the two countries to discuss in earnest the direction of our future-oriented development," Yoon said at the press conference.

In response to Japan's lifting of its export curbs, which had been placed on South Korea in 2019 in apparent response to the forced labor dispute, Seoul said it would withdraw its complaint with the World Trade Organization over the measures.

The two countries' big business lobbies also said they would each create a fund -- named the "future partnership fund" -- to promote joint research and youth exchanges.

Despite the achievements, there was no direct apology from Kishida over the forced labor or Japan's other wartime atrocities, something the South Korean victims and activists have demanded.

Kishida reaffirmed the Japanese government inherits on the whole the historical perceptions of past governments, including the 1998 joint declaration adopted by former President Kim Dae-jung and former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

"The intent of an apology is contained within that," a senior presidential official told reporters.

The 1998 declaration called for overcoming the past and building new relations, with Obuchi expressing remorse for the "horrendous damage and pain" Japan's colonial rule inflicted on the Korean people.

Source: Yonhap News Agency