Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Sunday became the first leaders of the two Asian neighbors to jointly visit a cenotaph dedicated to Korean victims of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Kishida, Yoon and their wives walked up to the cenotaph located in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park together and placed flowers in front of it.
"I feel that (the cenotaph visit) was very meaningful for bilateral ties and also in praying for world peace," Kishida said at the outset of a summit that followed the visit.
Yoon said the joint offering of condolences to Korean atomic bomb victims "will be remembered as a brave action from the prime minister to prepare a peaceful future together."
In the talks, the two leaders agreed on the need to strengthen their cooperation on global issues, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Kishida and Yoon also pledged to continue close trilateral collaboration also involving their common security ally the United States in dealing with North Korea's missile and nuclear development programs, the ministry said.
Noting the bilateral summit is the third in two months, Kishida said it is "obvious proof of progress in the Japan-South Korea relationship."
Yoon also referred to Kishida's statement made after their previous summit in Seoul earlier this month that his heart "aches" over a wartime labor issue between the two nations, saying the remarks "had touched the hearts of South Koreans."
The two leaders agreed on the joint visit to the memorial during their meeting in Seoul, in another sign of improved bilateral ties.
Yoon made the trip to the western Japanese city to join the three-day Group of Seven summit from Friday, attending its "outreach" sessions from Saturday along with leaders from other invited countries such as India, Brazil and Australia.
Since South Korea announced a government-backed fund to compensate former wartime laborers who had sued Japanese companies, Seoul and Tokyo have been actively improving their ties, including through the resumption of reciprocal visits by their leaders.
Some South Korean survivors of the atomic bombing living in Japan were deeply moved by the flower-offering at the cenotaph more than 77 years after the devastation and voiced hopes for a world without nuclear weapons.
"I'm speechless except to say I was moved," Park Nam Joo, 90, said at a press conference afterward, adding that she feels "happy to live long."
Kwon Joo Noh, a 73-year-old second-generation survivor, said he felt the event was "a first step toward a world without nuclear weapons."
Meanwhile, Shim Jin Tae, 80, an atomic bombing survivor who visited Hiroshima from South Korea this weekend, showed disappointment upon hearing that only victims living in Japan were given a chance to be present at Yoon and Kishida's visit to the cenotaph.
"As victims, we do welcome the first-ever visit by leaders of the two nations," but "it could have been even better" if the survivors in South Korea were there, Shim said.
Yoon met with Korean atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima on Friday, the first sitting South Korean president to do so, and vowed support for them.
Many Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies were killed in the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It is estimated that around 70,000 people from the Korean Peninsula were exposed to the blasts and 40,000 died, but an official investigation has not been conducted.
The cenotaph for the Korean victims was originally built in 1970 outside the park, separate from the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims and a museum documenting the atomic bombing devastation in the park. But it was moved to the park in 1999 after facing criticism that it represented discriminatory treatment.
The Japanese government began paying compensation in 2003 to overseas victims. In South Korea, a law to support atomic bomb victims was only enacted in 2016.
While atomic bomb victims in South Korea welcomed the decision regarding the joint visit, believing it will lead to reconciliation between the countries, they also expressed hope for an apology by Japan for its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
"I think it means reconciliation (for Japan and South Korea). We appreciate the fact that they understand even a little bit of our pain," said Jeong Won Sul, chairman of the Korea Atomic Bombs Victim Association.
About 10 members of the association traveled to Hiroshima hoping to meet with Yoon but were unable to do so.