Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Sunday he and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol agreed to work for an early settlement of wartime labor issues that brought down bilateral ties to arguably their lowest point in decades.
The deal was struck on the fringes of summits involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its partners in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. It was the first official meeting between leaders of the two countries in almost three years.
"We will make efforts toward an early resolution of the matters of concern," Kishida told reporters after holding talks with Yoon, noting that discussions on the issues between their diplomatic authorities have been "accelerating."
The leaders confirmed to continue communication also at the leader level, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Kishida said he and Yoon also agreed to work together toward the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific, a vision advocated by Japan and the United States as a counter to China's maritime assertiveness in the region.
Momentum to change course has been building since conservative Yoon took office in May, pledging to develop "future-oriented" relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
Japan and South Korea, longtime security allies of the United States but whose ties are often roiled by historical disputes, last organized a formal meeting between leaders in December 2019.
Kishida and Yoon sat for an approximately 30-minute meeting in New York in September on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly's annual session, but it was completely closed to the media, with Tokyo and Seoul describing it as "informal."
The format and characterization of that first one-on-one meeting between Kishida and Yoon suggested how difficult and delicate it was to manage bilateral ties after South Korea's top court ordered two Japanese firms to pay damages to Korean plaintiffs over wartime forced labor.
The rulings, connected to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula, were issued in late 2018 under the tenure of Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae In.
The companies have refused to comply with the rulings, in line with Japan's stance that all claims stemming from the colonial rule were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement. Under the deal, Tokyo provided Seoul with grants and loans in the name of economic cooperation.
Still, courts in South Korea have since ordered some of the firms' assets in the country to be liquidated to compensate plaintiffs.
On Sunday, Kishida and Yoon condemned North Korea's repeated launching of ballistic missiles as a "grave and imminent threat" to the region's security while reaffirming that they will keep working closely to address Pyongyang's unusually rapid pace of weapons demonstrations, according to the ministry.
Yoon said in late October that North Korea seems to have completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test, which would be the first since September 2017.
Kishida also secured strong support from Yoon regarding the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the ministry.
The leaders showed expectations for further people-to-people exchanges following mutual visa exemptions reintroduced as part of easing COVID-19 border controls, it said.