Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol agreed Friday to improve bilateral ties frayed over wartime issues and expressed hope to meet in person as they spoke by phone for the first time since Yoon's election win.
They also agreed to coordinate closely in addressing threats posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea, which has repeatedly test-fired ballistic missiles, and the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s by Pyongyang, the Japanese leader said.
"Japan and South Korea are important neighbors and healthy bilateral ties are essential in protecting the rules-based international order and in ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the region and the world," Kishida told reporters after their roughly 15-minute call.
"I told him that I would like to work together to improve ties between Japan and South Korea. President-elect Yoon replied that he places importance on the bilateral relationship and would like to cooperate to improve our relations," Kishida said.
Yoon, of the conservative main opposition party, narrowly won Wednesday's election, edging past his rival candidate from the ruling progressive party. After his victory was confirmed overnight, Yoon said he wants to build a "future-oriented" relationship with Japan.
According to Yoon's spokesperson Kim Eun Hye, the president-elect highlighted the importance of bilateral cooperation in his conversation with Kishida, and called for efforts to resolve issues standing between the two countries "in a way that is reasonable and would be of mutual benefit."
"As South Korea and Japan have many future tasks to work on together, including security in the northeast Asia region and economic prosperity, let's cooperate closely," Yoon was also quoted as telling the Japanese premier.
During the current administration of President Moon Jae In, ties between Tokyo and Seoul have sunk to their lowest point in years over issues dating back to Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
Kishida was foreign minister when Japan and South Korea reached an agreement in 2015 to settle "finally and irreversibly" the issue of "comfort women" procured for Japan's wartime military brothels. The Moon administration, which was launched in 2017, criticized the deal, saying it failed to properly reflect the women's wishes.
Compensation demands by South Koreans over what they claim was wartime forced labor have also strained the bilateral relationship as Japan maintains the compensation issue was settled in a bilateral agreement forged when relations were normalized in 1965.
Japan's recommendation in February of a gold and silver mine complex on Sado Island for the 2023 UNESCO World Heritage list has become another source of friction, drawing a protest from South Korea, which claims the site is linked to wartime forced labor of Koreans.
During the phone talks, Kishida stressed the need to develop bilateral ties based on a relationship of "friendship and cooperation" that has been built since 1965.
"I told him that trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the United States is also important," Kishida said, a day after the incoming South Korean president spoke with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Yoon was on the same page with Kishida over the three-way ties, his spokesperson said, with the president-elect expressing hope to further strengthen cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan over Korean Peninsula issues once he takes office in May.
Japanese government officials have welcomed the election of Yoon, who is viewed as having a softer stance on Japan than the incumbent president or the rival candidate. But Tokyo has taken the view that the ball is in South Korea's court to break the impasse caused by the wartime issues.
"During the process of seeking cooperation between South Korea and Japan, it will be needed to investigate the truth of the past and put our heads together over the problems that should be solved," Yoon told reporters on Thursday.
With Friday marking the 11th anniversary of the massive earthquake and tsunami that triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in Japan, Yoon also expressed his sympathy for those affected by the disaster in the day's call.
South Korea is among a group of nations and regions that have banned imports of food items such as fish from disaster-hit areas in northeastern Japan.
Japan's Kishida hopes to improve ties with South Korea under Yoon
South Korea's next leader Yoon vows future-oriented ties with Japan