Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-In over the phone Thursday, amid speculation over whether the stepping down of former Japanese leader Shinzo Abe will mark a change in tone for a bilateral relationship that has been at its lowest ebb in decades.

The 20-minute phone call — proposed by the South Korean side and the first since Suga became leader — offered a glimmer of hope that the ties between the two Asian countries may finally improve after having come to a standstill. During Abe’s almost eight-year tenure, Tokyo’s relationship with Seoul soured as they engaged in tit-for-tat actions over wartime history and trade issues. The last time Abe and Moon spoke was in December.

Suga, though, has quickly rejected the view that Japan will soften its stance under his leadership, telling reporters after the phone conversation that the country would work with its neighbor on issues connected to the coronavirus and defense but continue to put pressure on Moon to adjust his course and stabilize the faltering relationship.

“I told (Moon) that we should work together on various issues, including on the coronavirus, and I believe the Japan-South Korea and the Japan-U.S.-South Korean alliances are important to resolving issues such as North Korea, since Japan and South Korea are critically important neighbors to each other,” Suga said.

“I told President Moon that the current bilateral relations, which are very severe at this moment, due to issues such as wartime labor, should not be left hung out to dry. I’d continue to press South Korea strongly to take appropriate action based on our coherent position on various issues, like I did in today’s meeting.”

In the exchange, Moon pledged to continue his support for Japan’s efforts to repatriate its citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, a request made by Suga, according to a senior government official who was present during the phone call. The two leaders also agreed on facilitating talks to resume business travel between the two countries.

Thursday’s teleconference was part of Suga’s marathon run of phone calls with world and global organization leaders that started Sunday with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. He has so far spoken with leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. It is believed that Suga will talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday.

Although those phone calls are merely a congratulatory custom, their frequency and pace underscore Suga’s desire to brush off criticism that he is not as experienced in diplomacy as his predecessor, who aggressively traveled abroad hoping to cultivate personal relationships with world leaders and augment Japan’s influence.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during the United Nations General Assembly, as seen on a laptop computer, on Tuesday. | BLOOMBERG
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during the United Nations General Assembly, as seen on a laptop computer, on Tuesday. | BLOOMBERG

The two nations have long been locked in a contentious relationship due to issues regarding history, but developments linked to compensation for wartime labor in the last few years have pushed them closer to the edge.

A South Korean court is in the process of seizing assets from Nippon Steel so they can be liquidated to compensate Koreans who were forced to work during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Japan has argued that the issue was resolved by the 1965 economic cooperation pact that normalized diplomatic ties with South Korea. However, Moon has asserted the pact did not cover former wartime laborers’ individual rights to demand “consolation money” for their suffering under colonial rule. Many of them say they were forced to work under harsh conditions for Japan and have demanded direct compensation from the Japanese government separately.

Although Tokyo has denied accusations of a political motive, the trade ministry strengthened export control regulations on certain chemicals that were critical for South Korea’s manufacturing industry in July and August last year.

In return, Seoul threatened to pull the plug on the General Security of Military Information Agreement, an intelligence sharing pact with Tokyo that is essential for tracking North Korean missile activities. South Korea, though, backed away from the threat at the last minute.

The official who was present at Thursday’s phone call said neither leader brought up the topic of the export controls. Moon mentioned a China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit during the call, but the official declined to give specifics about that part of the conversation.

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