Japan PM, South Korea President-Elect Agree to Improve Ties

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea's president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol talked on the phone Friday, agreeing to cooperate toward improving their countries' ties, while signaling a thaw in icy relations strained by wartime history disputes.

Kishida told reporters after the 15-minute talk that "sound relations" between Japan and South Korea are "indispensable in achieving the rules-based international order and ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the region and the world."

Yoon, a conservative former top prosecutor and foreign policy neophyte, was elected South Korean president this week and will replace outgoing Moon Jae-in, under whose leadership bilateral relations have sunk to their lowest level in years over Japan's atrocities committed during its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Japanese officials, including lawmakers in Kishida's conservative governing party, have welcomed the victory of Yoon, who is expected to seek a stronger alliance with the United States, improved ties with Japan and a tougher stance toward North Korea. Yoon is to take office in May and serve a single five-year term.

Kishida said he and Yoon agreed to cooperate closely in dealing with North Korea and its nuclear and missile threats, including the North's recent launches of ICBM-class ballistic missiles.

Kishida also told Yoon he looked forward to working together to improve bilateral ties more broadly.

"And of course, we said that we wanted to meet each other face-to-face as soon as possible and to have dialogue. We made such remarks to each other, both from my side and from his side," said Kishida, without elaborating on the timing.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel welcomed the phone talks between the two American allies.

"Delighted Prime Minister Kishida and South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol spoke today about future partnership and cooperation," Emanuel tweeted. "As we face a common threat, we are reminded of our common responsibility. Values & rule of law matter, and our network of alliances protects them."

Kishida repeated Japan's position that the two countries need to develop their relations based on the mutual friendship and cooperation developed since their 1965 normalization of diplomatic ties.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul rapidly deteriorated after South Korean court rulings ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to Korean laborers over their abuses during World War II. Another sticking point is Korean "comfort women" who were sexually abused by Japan's wartime military.

Japan insists that all compensation issues were settled under the 1965 treaty normalizing relations with Seoul and that South Korean court orders to Japanese companies to pay compensation violate international law.