(3rd LD) Yoon arrives in Japan for summit with Kishida

TOKYO, March 16 (Yonhap) -- President Yoon Suk Yeol arrived in Japan on Thursday for a summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on a highly symbolic trip signaling a significant warming of long-strained relations following the resolution of a row over wartime forced labor.

The two-day visit is South Korea's first bilateral presidential trip to the neighboring nation in 12 years, an illustration showing how long the relations between the two countries have been frayed over historical disputes.

Yoon's predecessor had visited Japan in 2019, but it was for a Group of 20 summit, not a bilateral visit.

Shortly before the departure, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile into the East Sea, a provocation that underlines the need for closer security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo as well as for trilateral cooperation with the United States.

Yoon attended a National Security Council meeting ahead of his departure and warned that the North will "certainly pay for reckless provocations," the presidential office said in a statement.

Upon arriving in Tokyo, he visited a situation room set up at his hotel to receive a virtual briefing from military and security officials on the latest developments following the missile launch, a presidential official said.

"He was briefed that there is nothing significant to report and that they will manage the situation well. The president said he would continue to check and respond from here in the event there is anything unusual," the official told reporters.

This week's trip comes less than two weeks after Seoul announced a solution to the long-running dispute over compensation for Koreans forced into hard labor for Japanese companies when Korea was under Japan's colonial rule from 1910-1945.

Under the plan, a public foundation affiliated with the interior ministry will compensate the victims with donations from domestic businesses, a solution that has already been rejected by some of the victims for the lack of participation by Japanese firms.

Yoon has said the decision was "a determination aimed at moving toward a future-oriented relationship between South Korea and Japan," a reference to the various historical disputes that have plagued bilateral relations amid South Koreans' lingering resentment over Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Yoon has stressed the importance of improving the bilateral relationship in order to effectively counter the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, including through trilateral cooperation with the United States.

He has also said an improved relationship will help increase exchanges between the two countries' businesses and ultimately benefit their economies.

"This visit has the significance of signaling that the South Korea-Japan relationship, which has been strained until now, has entered the normalization stage in earnest," National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han said during a press briefing Tuesday.

"The two leaders will discuss normalization measures for the overall South Korea-Japan relationship, including the implementation of the solution to the issue of the forced labor ruling," Kim said, referring to the South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered two Japanese companies -- Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries -- to compensate Korean forced labor victims.

"I also believe there will be an opportunity to talk about ways to resolve the policy barriers hampering economic cooperation and about deepening the economic cooperation between the two countries," he said.

Also expected to be on the table during Thursday's summit are an array of pending issues between the two countries, including the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military intelligence sharing pact that was initially set to be suspended under the former Moon Jae-in administration before the decision was put on hold.

Other issues include Japan's export restrictions against South Korea, its removal of South Korea from a "white list" of favored trade partners and Seoul's complaint with the World Trade Organization over the export controls.

Yoon kicked off his working visit by meeting with Korean residents over lunch. This is his first visit to Japan since taking office and the first by a South Korean president in nearly four years.

Former President Moon visited Osaka in 2019, but that trip was for a G-20 summit, not a bilateral visit.

The last bilateral visit was by former President Lee Myung-bak in December 2011.

Yoon will then hold the summit with Kishida, which will be followed by a joint press briefing and a dinner.

On Friday, Yoon plans to meet with members of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians' Union and the Korea-Japan Cooperation Committee, hold a business roundtable over lunch with key business leaders from both countries, and speak to Japanese and South Korean college students at Keio University.

First lady Kim Keon Hee is accompanying Yoon on the trip and will attend various events, including a meeting with Kishida's wife, Yuko.

"Through the summit and dinner, the two leaders are expected to affirm to each other their commitment to developing the bilateral relationship while building the personal trust between them," Kim, the national security adviser, said.

"The confidence building between President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida is expected to have a positive impact on the friendship and exchanges between the two countries' peoples going forward," he said.

Yoon and Kishida have held bilateral summits on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings. They met during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September and again during a gathering led by Southeast Asian nations in Cambodia in November.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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