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At their Seoul summit on Monday, Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation to tackle the global financial crisis and combat any move toward protectionism. They also agreed to closely cooperate with the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama in dealing with North Korea.

Mr. Aso and Mr. Lee cleverly avoided sensitive issues such as differences in perception of modern Asian history and the territorial dispute over islets in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. Taking up these issues could have weakened their administrations at a time when both are suffering from sluggish approval ratings at home. South Korea, whose economy has been battered by the global financial crisis and which has seen its currency’s value plummet, seeks an increase in physical investments in the country by Japanese enterprises. Mr. Aso responded to this by taking 18 business leaders to Seoul. But the two leaders could not produce an agreement on launching a bilateral economic partnership immediately.

The focus of the summit was coordinating the stances of Japan and South Korea toward Mr. Obama’s administration. Mr. Aso and Mr. Lee agreed to closely cooperate with Mr. Obama in order to attain denuclearization of North Korea. The two leaders appear worried that the U.S. may bypass Japan and South Korea and pursue bilateral talks with North Korea, or deepen ties with China, in handling North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue.

Anticipating Mr. Obama’s request for contributions from Japan and South Korea toward improving the situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Aso and Mr. Lee agreed to promote human resources development and agriculture in the country.

Although both leaders expressed hope for a “new era” of bilateral relations, Japan-South Korea ties are not necessarily firm given the divergent views on Takeshima and historical issues, and on South Korea’s trade deficit with Japan of more than $30 billion. Efforts to strengthen ties will demand careful handling.

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