TOKYO/SEOUL -- In the first direct exchange between the leaders of the two countries in nine months, new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga raised the thorny issue of Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II in a call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
"I told President Moon that we cannot leave our bilateral relationship, which has been extremely damaged by matters such as the [wartime] laborer issue, as it is," Suga told reporters in Tokyo after the roughly 20-minute call on Thursday morning. "On the basis of [Japan's] consistent stance on a range of issues, I hope to push for South Korea to respond appropriately from now on."
South Korea's presidential Blue House said that Moon told Suga the two countries "should find the best solution for the forced laborers" even though South Korea and Japan have different approaches on the issue.
Ties between Tokyo and Seoul have been fractious in recent years. South Korea's Supreme Court has ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans forced to work in mines and factories during the war, and the neighbors regularly spar over the issues of so-called wartime comfort women and the sovereignty of islands between the two countries.
Suga emphasized that cooperation is needed to tackle the North Korean issue and the coronavirus pandemic that is damaging both countries' economies. Moon expressed his support on Suga's request for help in resolving the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
"Japan and South Korea are extremely important neighbors," Suga said, adding that "cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. is important."
In the first talks between leaders since talks between former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Moon in China in December, they agreed to accelerate cooperation to reopen the border between the two countries.