NAGOYA – The foreign ministers of Japan and South Korean agreed Saturday to arrange a summit between their leaders next month, seeking to build on a lowering of tensions after Seoul remained a party to a key military pact.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in could meet in China in December, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, agreed on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Nagoya.
The summit would take place on the occasion of the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral meeting scheduled for next month, said a Japanese diplomat who declined to give his name.
Ties between the two countries, both key U.S. allies in the region, have hit rock bottom in recent months over trade and Japan’s war-time atrocities.
This led to Seoul threatening to withdraw from a key military intelligence-sharing pact, which triggered alarm in the United States, which said such a move would benefit only North Korea and China.
But late Friday, with only six hours until the pact was due to expire, South Korea reversed course and agreed to extend it “conditionally,” warning, however, it could be “terminated” at any moment.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) enabled the two U.S. allies to share military secrets, particularly concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capacity.
Washington welcomed Seoul’s decision but urged the pair to “continue sincere discussions to ensure a lasting solution to historic issues.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a muted response to the decision Friday, stressing that coordination between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington is “very important” while Defense Minister Taro Kono urged South Korea to extend the pact “in a firm manner.”
The relationship between Japan and South Korea has been overshadowed by the 35 years of brutal colonization by the Japanese — including the issues over the wartime “comfort women” and forced labor — that is still bitterly resented today.
Ties began a downward spiral after a series of South Korean court rulings late last year ordering Japanese firms to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them during the war.
This infuriated Tokyo, with Japan insisting the matter had been settled in a 1965 treaty normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries, which included significant reparations.
The historic dispute morphed into a trade spat between the two market economies, as Japan removed South Korea from a so-called whitelist of countries that enjoyed streamlined export control procedures.
South Korea hit back with similar trade restrictions and a decision to scrap the intelligence-sharing pact, surprising analysts who thought defense ties would be immune from the diplomatic row.
While insisting the issues of trade and GSOMIA are two different issues, the trade ministry in Tokyo announced that working-level talks will resume between the pair to thrash out their trade differences.
“Thus far Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has signaled no shift in his government’s position on either the whitelist or the dispute over compensation for colonial-era forced labor that triggered this year’s crisis in bilateral relations,” noted Tobias Harris, an analyst at Teneo consultants.
“Without assurances that Seoul will adhere to Japan’s understanding of the treaty, it may be difficult to prevent the long-term drift in the relationship,” added Harris.