Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will arrive in South Korea Thursday for a visit aimed at strengthening ties ahead of the World Cup soccer finals in May and June which the two nations are co-hosting. Improving economic links between the two countries will be the centerpiece of Mr. Koizumi's talks with his South Korean counterpart, President Kim Dae-jung.
Relations between Japan and South Korea have warmed considerably since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's first trip to Seoul last October. At that time, South Koreans were outraged over Mr. Koizumi's visit to a Tokyo shrine in August where he honored the country's war dead, including convicted Class-A war criminals. They were also seething over Tokyo's approval of a history textbook by right-wing authors, which critics say glosses over Japan's wartime atrocities.
In a statement designed to ease tensions, Mr. Koizumi apologized to South Korea for the suffering Japan inflicted during its harsh colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The two countries also set up a joint panel to monitor history teaching in Japanese schools.
Tokyo says a key aim of the upcoming visit is to strengthen economic relations between Japan and South Korea whose combined output adds up to about two-thirds of Asia's economy. The two countries are expected to take the initial steps toward creating a free-trade zone. They also are expected to sign an investment agreement.
Lee Chung-min is a professor of international relations at Yonsei University. He says a free-trade pact would have important political implications.
"The political message that descends to the world and Northeast Asia at large is that the South Koreans and Japanese are formalizing a free-trade agreement at some time in the future that will be a key pillar for a free trade regime in Northeast Asia," he pointed out. "This sends a very clear signal that the South Koreans are willing to work with the Japanese over a range of economic and trade as well as security and political issues."
Mr. Lee says the key political issue at the summit will be North Korea. President Bush's recent remark including North Korea as part of an axis of evil, along with Iraq and Iran, sparks fear that this will heighten hostility in the region and undo years of President's Kim's work to improve relations with Pyongyang. Regional security remains the top priority for both South Korea and Japan.
Japan's already troubled relations with North Korea have recently worsened because of renewed concerns about a group of Japanese nationals allegedly abducted by North Korea about two decades ago. Japanese authorities have just added another name to the list, bringing the total number of alleged kidnapping victims to eleven.
By contrast, South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung remains committed to his sunshine policy of engaging the Communist state even though the relations between the two Koreas have waned since his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in June of 2000.
Professor Lee of Yonsei University notes that this summit is likely to be one of the last for the two leaders, since Mr. Kim is in the final year of his presidency. "Given the overall context of Korean-Japanese relations, there are strong and binding institutional ties that will outlast either President Kim or Prime Minister Koizumi," he said. "There will be elections in South Korea in December. Prime Minister Koizumi may not be in office for that much longer. But the legacy these two leaders will leave is that the Korean government and Japanese government are able to talk about outstanding issues irrespective of regime or government changes."
With legacy on their minds, the two leaders hope to cement ties that will last long after the World Cup football fever dies down.