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International relations

South Korea's Yoon, ex-Japan PM Aso call for more dialogue

Both sides seek to improve ties amid barrage of North Korean missile launches

Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, left, shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during a visit to Seoul on Nov. 2. (Yonhap via Kyodo)

SEOUL (Kyodo) -- South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso agreed Wednesday that more communication is necessary to improve bilateral ties.

The meeting between Yoon and Aso, vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, took place in Seoul as the two countries try to find solutions to labor compensation issues that have complicated relations for the past few years.

Aso told Yoon during their 85-minute talk that he will continue to work on restoring and developing relations while noting that Japan and South Korea need to maintain dialogue and communication, according to the presidential office.

Yoon, meanwhile, asked Aso to contribute to promoting civilian exchanges for the development of ties between the two countries, the office said in a statement.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wanted Aso, an LDP heavyweight, who has previously served as both deputy prime minister and finance minister, to pave the way for a formal summit between the premier and Yoon, sources close to the matter said.

Kishida, who took office in October last year, is considering holding talks with Yoon on the sidelines of an international gathering, such as the Group of 20 summit slated to be held in Indonesia this month.

In late September, Kishida and Yoon reaffirmed that the two nations would aim to restore "sound bilateral relations" in a meeting on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, which was fully closed to the media and described by Tokyo and Seoul as "informal."

Still, the in-person, sit-down talks were the first between leaders of the Asian neighbors since December 2019.

Aso, head of a group of cross-party lawmakers and business leaders promoting Tokyo-Seoul relations, visited South Korea just days after a Halloween crowd crush incident in Seoul that left more than 150 people dead, including two Japanese women.

The meeting came as North Korea fired a barrage of artillery projectiles Wednesday, with one of the missiles falling on the south side of the de facto maritime border for the first time since the Korean Peninsula was divided.

Under Yoon's predecessor, Moon Jae-in, Tokyo-Seoul ties sank to their lowest point in years after South Korea's top court in late 2018 ordered two major Japanese companies to pay damages to Korean plaintiffs over issues surrounding forced labor during World War II.

The companies have refused to adhere to the rulings in line with the Japanese government's decision not to recognize them. Local courts have since ordered some of the companies' assets in South Korea to be liquidated to compensate the plaintiffs.

Tokyo has called on Seoul to handle the issue properly, saying the relationship would suffer "serious consequences" if the assets were indeed sold off, harming the interests of Japanese businesses.

The Japanese government has maintained that all claims stemming from its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement.

Based on the agreement, Japan provided South Korea with grants and loans in the name of economic cooperation.

In May, Yoon became president of South Korea with a pledge to take a future-oriented approach toward Japan, while Kishida has also emphasized the necessity of building constructive ties with the country.

Tokyo and Seoul are now discussing plans to set up a foundation, funded by contributions from South Korean companies to pay compensation for wartime labor to plaintiffs on behalf of Japanese corporate defendants, diplomatic sources said.

Although details remain undecided, Japan and South Korea are trying to resolve the dispute by the end of this year, according to the sources.

Another veteran LDP lawmaker is also scheduled to visit South Korea as head of a cross-party group of lawmakers seeking friendly bilateral relations. Fukushiro Nukaga told reporters after a meeting with Kishida on Tuesday that he plans to talk with Yoon on Friday.

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