TOKYO (AFP) – Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met his South Korean counterpart Thursday and warned frayed relations should be mended, but appeared to suggest it was Seoul’s responsibility to make that happen.
Bilateral ties between the regional neighbours are at rock-bottom over a dispute related to the use of forced labour during World War Two, with the countries trading retaliatory sanctions.
“The relationship between Japan and South Korea is in now an extremely serious situation, but this important relationship should not be left like this,” Abe said during a meeting with South Korea’s Lee Nak-yon, the foreign ministry in Tokyo said.
But Abe said he wanted “South Korea to keep the promises between the two countries so as to create a catalyst for recovering a healthy Japan-South Korea relationship”.
The brief exchange was the first such high-level meeting since relations between the countries began to sour in the wake of South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate wartime labourers.
In July, Japan tightened export controls on three chemicals essential to key products made by South Korean firms including Samsung. Seoul has retaliated with its own trade measures.
Japan says its decision was made on national security grounds, but the move was widely seen as a response to the compensation rulings.
Japan says all reparations claims from its 35-year colonial rule were settled under a 1965 treaty and associated economic agreement made as the countries normalised relations.
Lee, who was in Japan to attend the new Japanese emperor’s formal enthronement ceremony earlier this week, handed a letter from President Moon Jae-in to Abe, the ministry said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing a South Korean official, said the letter described Japan as a key partner for regional peace, but stopped short of proposing the two leaders meet.
While both countries are key US allies in the region, relations between the two remain heavily affected by Japan’s expansionism in the first half of the 20th century, including its wartime activities on the peninsula.