SEOUL (Reuters) - The leaders of Japan and South Korea, keen to repair often testy ties, agreed on Monday to revive stalled “shuttle diplomacy” and forge better bilateral ties backed by stronger economic links.
In their first summit, visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and South Korea’s new President Lee Myung-bak agreed to exchange visits later this year, a signal of warmer ties ahead between the former World War Two foes.
“We agreed to begin top-level shuttle diplomacy to have comfortable and frank talks,” Fukuda told reporters after holding talks with Lee at the Blue House presidential palace.
Lee agreed to visit Japan in late April, while Fukuda promised to return the visit by year-end, Fukuda said.
“Shuttle diplomacy” of annual visits by leaders of the two Asian neighbours had been suspended after former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid his respects at a war shrine seen by critics as a symbol of Tokyo’s past militarism.
Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, tried to mend fences by visiting Seoul soon after taking office in 2006, but then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun did not reciprocate the visit.
Fukuda said he shared the view with Lee to “build a new era of relations between Japan and South Korea”, adding: “I believe there will be a situation where we can do that.”
Fukuda said Lee had also agreed to look into the background of stalled bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) talks when he visits Japan in April. But the two leaders stopped short of agreeing to resume talks on clinching the deal.
Tokyo and Seoul launched FTA negotiations in December 2003 but the talks stalled a year later because of bitter wrangling over tariffs. Pressure in both countries to protect their farm sectors was a major obstacle.
Japan and South Korea are each others’ third biggest trading partners after the United States and China.
Tokyo and Seoul had two-way trade of $82.7 billion in 2007, up 6 percent from the year before, with South Korea running a record $29.8 billion deficit, according to South Korean statistics.
Ties between Japan and South Korea have long been strained over a string of issues stemming from Tokyo’s atrocities committed before and during World War Two.
Older Koreans harbour bitter memories of Japan’s often brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
During the years it controlled the Korean peninsula, Imperial Japan forced Koreans to take Japanese names, banned the use of the Korean language and drafted tens of thousands of Korean women to provide sex for its army.
Fukuda said he did not discuss with Lee issues stemming from Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Reporting by Teruaki Ueno