Top companies in Japan and South Korea are pushing to put a difficult history behind them
By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Ju-min Park
TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) – Business leaders from Japan and South Korea on Friday pledged to work more closely on chips and technology to put behind years of bitterness over the war history that has fueled the ire of the South Korean public.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met leaders from both countries in Tokyo as he visited a South Korean leader for the first time in 12 years. On Thursday, Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to restart ties and ate an omelet dish served over rice called “omurice.”
Tensions between neighbors and US allies have been a growing concern for the United States, which wants to present a united front against China’s growing power and the threats posed by North Korea’s expanding missile program.
Washington has worked to improve trade diplomacy with both countries, focusing on areas like chips where South Korea and Japan are key players in an attempt to blunt China’s growing technological power.
There is “much room for cooperation” between Japan and South Korea in semiconductors, batteries and electric vehicles, Yoon said at Friday’s meeting.
“Both governments will do everything possible to create opportunities to interact and do business with each other,” he said.
Business lobbies from both countries said they would jointly fund a “forward-looking” fund of about 200 million yen ($1.5 million) for research into securing rare resources, tackling supply chain challenges and youth exchanges.
It’s unclear whether these efforts will escape the tide of history, given the backlash in South Korea, where many believe Japan failed to adequately atone for abuses during its colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, including the use of forced laborers can .
The newly announced funding project appeared to allow Japanese companies to participate in funding programs that could benefit South Korea without forcing Japanese companies – or the Japanese government – to back down from long-held stances that the compensation issue would under a 1965 treaty.
Lee Jae-myung, leader of South Korea’s main opposition party, said Yoon “sold our country’s pride, the human rights of victims and the justice of history, all in exchange for a bowl of Omurice.”
Relations between the two countries plunged to their lowest level in decades when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to former forced laborers in 2018. Fifteen South Koreans have won such cases, but none have been compensated.
Companies such as steelmaker Nippon Steel Corp and industrial conglomerate Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd have been the target of lawsuits from former workers.
A turning point came this month when South Korea said its own companies – several of which benefited from the 1965 treaty – would compensate forced laborers.
Yoon’s support has fallen since that announcement, with his approval rating now at 33% amid public dissatisfaction with his handling of ties with Japan, a Gallup Korea poll showed on Friday.
“Japan has maintained its position that the problem of forced labor during the war has been solved,” said Yuki Asaba, a professor at Doshisha University and an expert on Japan-Korea relations.
“It is likely that Japanese companies will show their sincerity by providing funds to the fund set up by Japanese and Korean business groups,” Asaba said. “It is the greatest gesture of goodwill.”
The better ties are undoubtedly a relief to the United States, which has been pushing for reconciliation and seizing the opportunity that has presented itself since Yoon’s inauguration last May. His left-leaning predecessor had taken a tougher stance on Japan.
Both Yoon and Kishida admitted their relationship “is at a crossroads,” US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
“The historical events of the last two weeks clearly show that the two heads of state have bravely chosen the path of partnership and they must be commended for their choice.”
The region’s strategic importance was highlighted Thursday when North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile to demonstrate a “hard response posture” to joint US-South Korean military exercises.
Japan said its Self-Defense Forces conducted joint aerial exercises with the US military over the Sea of Japan on Friday.
US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman thanked both South Korea and Japan for their efforts to ensure security in the Indo-Pacific, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
($1 = 132.9400 yen)
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Satoshi Sugiyama and Kaori Kaneko in Tokyo and Hyunsu Yim and Josh Smith in Seoul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel)