Japan, South Korea Foreign Ministers Meet to Mend Ties

TOKYO (AP) -- The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan held talks in Tokyo on Monday in what both sides said was a renewed effort to improve bilateral relations.

The countries' ties have been strained mostly over historical issues, such as Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula and Tokyo's mobilization of Korean laborers and sex slaves leading up to and during World War II.

At the heart of the dispute are South Korean court rulings in 2018, which ordered two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to compensate forced Korean laborers. The Japanese companies have refused to comply with the rulings, and the former laborers and their supporters responded by pushing for the forced sale of corporate assets of Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi.

Since taking office in March, South Korea's new conservative government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol has been pushing to improve ties with Japan and bolster a trilateral security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo to better deal with North Korean nuclear threats.

"While looking at (history) squarely, we want to establish future-oriented cooperative relations with Japan that meet our shared interest and values," Park Jin, South Korea's top diplomat, told reporters last week.

On Monday, Park bumped elbows with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi at the official guest house, as they conversed softly together in English. Both have attended schools in the U.S., and Park has also studied in Japan.

The visit, the first by a South Korean foreign minister since November 2019, comes after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, considered an influential figure in shaping Japan's foreign policy.

The talks and the working dinner were closed to reporters.

Park and Hayashi had also met ahead of the South Korea presidential inauguration in Seoul in May, as well as in Bali, Indonesia, for the Group of 20 meeting earlier this month.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry in July launched consultations with lawyers and activists representing the Korean forced laborers and other experts to collect opinions on how to resolve the dispute. It's unclear if efforts will lead to a breakthrough.

Besides painful history, the two nations also share a long-running territorial dispute over islands that are controlled by Seoul but also claimed by Japan. Tokyo calls them Takeshima and South Korea calls them Dokdo.

President Joe Biden's administration has tried to bring the two Asian democracies to work closer together on security and regional issues amid the war in Ukraine and tensions including threats from North Korea and saber-rattling from China.

North Korea this year stepped up missile and artillery tests in what is seen as an attempt to pressure Washington and Seoul to relax international sanctions against Pyongyang.