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Japan-South Korea rift

South Korea to take part in naval review in Japan

Move seen as effort by Seoul to warm chilly ties with neighbor

Japanese, South Korean and U.S. naval vessels take part in joint anti-submarine exercises off South Korea's coast on Sept. 30. (South Korean Navy/Yonhap/Reuters)   © Reuters

SEOUL/TOKYO (Kyodo) -- South Korea said Thursday it will take part in an international naval review scheduled for next week near Tokyo, in the latest sign that President Yoon Suk Yeol's government is willing to improve its ties with Japan, which had soured over wartime labor disputes and other issues.

The decision to accept the Japanese invitation to the Nov. 6 fleet review, to be held in Sagami Bay off Kanagawa Prefecture at a time of heightened regional tensions, including on the Korean Peninsula, reflects Seoul's desire to prioritize matters with "implications for national security," South Korea's Defense Ministry said.

It will be the first time for the South Korean navy to the Japanese event since 2015.

The South Korean move comes after signs of a thaw in relations between the two East Asian neighbors, which has emerged since Yoon took office in May with a pledge to take a future-oriented approach toward relations with Japan. Ties had previously deteriorated under his progressive predecessor Moon Jae In.

Adopting a hard-line stance on North Korea, Yoon has been working to boost South Korea's alliance with the United States, as well as improve trilateral defense cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan, in order to counter growing North Korean nuclear and missile threats. There are mounting fears that the North could conduct a seventh nuclear test soon.

The governments of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Yoon have been holding consultations over a historical wartime labor dispute. There are pending court orders from the Moon administration era which seek to liquidate assets seized from two Japanese companies, in order to compensate Korean plaintiffs over forced labor issues during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula.

Seoul had not made its position on the fleet review widely known, even though the application deadline for participating expired roughly 2 weeks ago, according to the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. There has been strong criticism within South Korea of its naval force participating in the event, given that Japanese naval ships still hoist the "rising sun" flag as their ensign.

The flag was used by the Imperial Japanese Army until the end of World War II, and is widely viewed in South Korea as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression.

Japan canceled plans to participate in a South Korean-hosted naval exercise in 2018, after Seoul asked Tokyo to refrain from flying the rising sun flag.

In 2019, Japan decided against inviting South Korea to a planned international naval review in Sagami Bay, apparently due to heightened tensions between Tokyo and Seoul. The event ended up being called off owing to an approaching typhoon.

Japan has also invited China to the upcoming naval event, but Beijing is yet to reply, the MSDF said. Meanwhile, Tokyo has rescinded its invitation to Russia following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in late February.

The MSDF said 18 vessels from 12 nations, including the United States, Britain and Australia, as well as five U.S. warplanes, are expected to attend the event as of Tuesday.

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