Japan’s Abe strikes conciliatory note on South Korea, row may be easing

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that South Korea was its “most important neighbor” and that the two shared basic values, taking a conciliatory tone toward the country that has been locked in a bitter row with Tokyo for over a year.

The comment comes after South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week proposed the two countries work together to resolve the issue of wartime forced laborers, and called Japan “our closest neighbor.”

It also follows some fence-mending steps in recent months, including Seoul’s reversal of its decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, and Tokyo’s partial easing of curbs on the export of high-tech materials to South Korea.

“Under an increasingly severe security environment in Northeast Asia, diplomacy with neighboring countries is extremely important,” Abe told parliament in his policy speech.

“Essentially, South Korea is the most important neighbor with which Japan shares basic values and strategic interests.”

In a parliamentary speech in October, Abe simply referred to South Korea as an “important neighbor.”

But Abe and Moon met in China in December and stressed the need to improve ties, officials from both sides said.

Also, Moon told a news conference last week South Korea would actively cooperate for the success of this year’s Olympic Games in Japan, and that he hoped the sporting event would provide a good opportunity to fundamentally improve ties.

Relations between Japan and South Korea, two of the United States’ major Asian allies, plunged to their lowest in decades after South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese firms in 2018 to compensate some wartime forced laborers.

Japan says the matter was settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations following Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula.

“I sincerely hope South Korea honors the commitments between the two counties and works toward building future-oriented relations,” Abe said in his Monday speech, reiterating that the onus is on Seoul to put ties back on an even keel.

By adopting a warmer tone toward its neighbor while making it clear that the ball is in Seoul’s court, Abe’s message was meant to encourage South Korea to take fresh steps to resolve the issue, said Narushige Michishita, vice president of Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

“If South Korea realizes that Japan is resolved to maintain the firm stance, that will give them an incentive to buckle down and decide what they should do now,” Michishita said.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Hyonhee Shin in Seoul)