South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s visit to Japan today marks the first bilateral meeting between the two countries’ leaders since the thaw began in earnest between the Koreas in June.

During his three-day visit, Kim and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori are expected to reaffirm the importance of Japan, South Korea and the United States coordinating policies to deal with North Korea.

The two leaders will also discuss bilateral economic cooperation and measures to enhance bilateral cultural exchanges, according to Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo.

The summit will take place in the hot spring resort of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture — a setting that senior ministry officials hope will enable the two leaders to discuss key issues in a relaxed atmosphere.

“Kim’s visit will provide an opportunity for the two leaders to freely exchange their views and discuss future policy directions,” a senior ministry official said.

The latest bilateral meeting follows Mori’s visit to Seoul in May, when the two leaders agreed to coordinate their respective policies toward North Korea and to try to conclude a bilateral investment treaty by the end of the year.

However, the atmosphere surrounding North Korea has changed dramatically for both Tokyo and Seoul since that meeting.

During their landmark Pyongyang summit in June, Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed to take various measures toward the goal of eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

The two Koreas have already begun taking steps toward that end, including last month’s brief reunification of separated families in the North and South and this week’s start of construction to rebuild a railway line linking the two Koreans.

As for relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, the 10th round of bilateral normalization talks was held late last month in Tokyo and in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, but led to little progress.

North Korea continued to insist that Japan pay compensation for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, while Tokyo urged progress regarding investigations into the alleged abduction of Japanese by North Korean agents.

But the two sides did lay the groundwork for future dialogue, with Japan indirectly proposing to settle “issues of the past” by providing economic cooperation, in place of compensation, as it did with South Korea in normalizing ties in 1965.

“With such changes taking place, Japan and South Korea are facing a very important phase in dealing with North Korea,” the Foreign Ministry official said.

During the Atami talks, Kim is expected to urge Mori to talk face to face with Kim Jong Il to provide the normalization talks with momentum.

Earlier this week, South Korea’s Kim told visiting leaders of Japan’s three ruling parties that direct Japan-North Korea summit talks are necessary to accelerate negotiations. Mori, for his part, has also expressed his desire to hold talks with the North Korean leader.

On bilateral issues, Kim is expected to again press Japan to pass legislation to grant permanent foreign residents — many of whom are ethnic Koreans — the right to vote in local elections by the end of this year.

A bill has been jointly submitted to the Diet by New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — coalition allies of Mori’s Liberal Democratic Party. It calls for giving permanent foreign residents who have lived in the same municipality for more than three months the right to vote in local elections.

The suffrage issue will be deliberated during the extraordinary Diet session that began Thursday, but whether the bill will be passed remains unclear, as opinions are divided among LDP politicians.

Mori and Kim are also expected to reaffirm their commitment to try to conclude a bilateral investment treaty by the end of this year, another Foreign Ministry official said.

The treaty is designed to boost bilateral trade by giving each other’s businesses the same status as domestic companies when making investments.

“The two countries are in the final stage of concluding the treaty, with both sides working on details of exceptions to the clauses,” the official said.

Kim may bring up South Korea’s repeated calls for the Emperor to visit Seoul, but Japan is expected to only say that it will endeavor to create an environment that would make realization of the visit possible, Japanese officials said.

Japanese-South Korean relations have become more cordial since Kim visited Tokyo in October 1998.

During that visit, Kim and then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi agreed to put the past behind them and build on a new relationship with Japan apologizing for its past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

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