By Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith
SEOUL, March 15 (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Wednesday that cooperation with Japan is vital in confronting North Korea’s growing threats and protecting global supply chains, calling on both countries to not snarl relations in domestic politics.
Yoon made the remarks in a written interview with international media, including Reuters, as he prepares to depart for Tokyo on Thursday for a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first such visit in 12 years.
The planned trip comes after South Korea announced last week its companies would compensate victims of forced labour under Japan’s colonial rule from 1910-1945, seeking to end a dispute that has undermined U.S.-led efforts to present a unified front against China and North Korea.
“There is an increasing need for Korea and Japan to cooperate in this time of a polycrisis, with North Korean nuclear and missile threats escalating and global supply chains being disrupted,” Yoon said. “We cannot afford to waste time while leaving strained Korea-Japan relations unattended.”
Some of the victims who were forced to work under Japanese colonial rule have rejected the government’s compensation plan, potentially complicating Seoul’s efforts to end the diplomatic spat.
But Yoon said it was time for the people of the two countries to move forward “rather than confront over the past”, adding that Japan has expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology in regard to its past colonial rule through the position of its previous governments”.
“What matters is to ensure that such positions and behaviour continue unwaveringly,” Yoon said, urging both countries to “guard against bilateral relations being exploited for domestic politics”.
With economic cooperation expected to be high on the agenda during his trip, Yoon said stronger ties between the two countries would help global supply chains, and build more “stable” economic relations with China.
Yoon’s visit also comes as North Korea has been raising tensions in the region weapons test, including the latest launch of two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast on Tuesday.
North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said the launches were part of a military drill to train its troops carry out their mission at any time and “annihilate the enemy” if necessary.
South Korea, the United States and Japan must further strengthen security cooperation to deter North Korea, Yoon said, adding that he expected GSOMIA, an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, to be “invigorated” as the two countries restore trust.
South Korea has been conditionally maintaining the pact, which is intended to help the two countries share information on North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities.
Yoon denounced North Korea for focusing on its “reckless” weapons programmes when the country’s food shortages have “grown worse” and said South Korea “will never acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear state under any circumstances.”