Japan and South Korea have agreed to cooperate more closely to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. They also hope to put the past behind them and develop stronger trade ties. This is the result of the new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s trip to Tokyo to meet Japanese PM Yasuo Fukuda.
South Koreans protesting in October 2005 when the Japanese PM visited the controversial Yasukuni war shrine
About 600,000 South Koreans live in Japan -- they make up the largest group of foreigners in the country -- after the Chinese. The capitals Seoul and Tokyo are a mere two-hour flight from each other and the two countries are each other’s third-most important trading partners, after China and the United States.
But no South Korean leader has made an official visit to Japan during the past four years. In 2004, the two countries celebrated the beginnings of a form of “shuttle” diplomacy.
This was, however, suspended when a visit by the ex-Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro to the controversial Yasukuni shrine once again triggered icy relations between the two neighbours.
Japan colonised the Korean peninsula in 1910, remaining until it suffered military defeat in 1945. Korea suffered its worse treatment at the hands of the imperial occupiers during the Second World War.
Today, a border conflict about a small group of islands in the Sea of Japan continues to dog relations between the two countries.
Official diplomatic relations between them were only established in 1965. And at the time, there were heavy protests against Japan in South Korea. One of the protesters was the current president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak. Times have changed.
Shortly after taking office in March of this year, President Lee made the following comment:
"South Korea and Japan have to again build up their bilateral relations, relations which look to the future and have practical use. The relationship between our two countries cannot develop if we are tied up by the past.“
Developing business ties
An important business delegation is accompanying President Lee on his trip to Japan. The South Korean politicians and business representatives will meet their Japanese counterparts to draw up ideas on how to develop their trade and business ties.
After meeting the South Korean president on Monday, the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda expressed satisfaction at a joint press conference: "Today’s discussions with President Lee took place in a very friendly atmosphere.“
President Lee agreed with his host, telling reporters that although Japan and South Korea could not forget their shared history, “focussing on the past must not be an obstacle to the future."
Towards free trade
One way of moving on is to resume stalled negotiations on a free trade agreement between the two countries.
These were launched in December 2003 but stalled as relations became increasingly cool. The two leaders have now agreed to open working-level talks to restart the negotiations.
But clearly, the main aim of this first meeting in four years was to show that South Korea and Japan can build up a relationship of trust and look together towards the future.