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Japan-South Korea rift

Moon and Abe meet briefly for first time in four months

South Korean and Japanese leaders avoid formal summit amid wartime labor dispute

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in speak in Bangkok on Nov. 4. (Photo courtesy of South Korea's presidential Blue House)

BANGKOK -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday held brief informal talks on the sidelines of broader regional meetings, with the world watching whether they will begin to mend their countries' frayed ties.

The two leaders shook hands and chatted on the sideline of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Plus Three and East Asia meetings hosted by Thailand. Moon and Abe had not come face to face for four months, since they had a 10-second greeting for photos at the Group of 20 Summit in Osaka in the late June.

"President Moon and Prime Minister Abe had their talks under very friendly and sincere atmosphere," the presidential Blue House spokesperson said. "Two leaders agreed that South Korea-Japan relations are important and reaffirmed that their bilateral issues should be resolved through dialogues."

Monday's casual meeting came a year after South Korea's top court upheld a lower-court ruling that Nippon Steel must pay 100 million won ($85,600) to each of four plaintiffs who worked in Japan during World War II.

Abe on Monday emphasized his view that the ruling went against international law and demanded for it to be rectified.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have soured since the court decision, hurting both economic ties and security cooperation. In July, Japan tightened controls on high-tech materials exports to South Korea, making life difficult for export powerhouses such as Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix.

Seoul responded the following month by declining to renew a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, a vital arrangement that helps protect both countries from North Korean threats. The pact, known as the general security of military information agreement, or GSOMIA, will expire in late November.

The court ruling on wartime labor drew strong protests from Japan, which argued the compensation issue was settled by a 1965 treaty between the two countries. The agreement normalized diplomatic relations, with Japan paying $300 million in compensation and extending an additional $200 million in loans to make amends for its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

"It is positive that Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon visited Tokyo, members of the two parliaments held discussions, and Moon spoke with Abe on the sidelines of ASEAN meetings. But none of these interactions represent a turning point," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"Sustained improvement in Seoul-Tokyo ties requires a mechanism to address South Korea's Supreme Court rulings on wartime labor," he said. "It is largely up to Seoul to establish the legal basis for a compensation fund that builds on the existing 1965 foundation for bilateral relations," he added.

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