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Facing some common threats, Japan and South Korea leaders meet to address them

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right, suppose you have two friends, close friends, people you rely on, but they really don't get along with each other. That is the awkward reality for the United States in East Asia. Its troops help to defend both Japan and South Korea. The U.S. also depends on both to confront threats, including China and North Korea, which launched another missile just today. So it's a big deal that Japan and South Korea have strained relations and also a big deal that the leaders of the two countries have now met and agreed to begin regular visits again. They even resolved a trade dispute. NPR's Anthony Kuhn lives in Seoul, has traveled many times to Tokyo, so he's the person to tell us about this. Hey there, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes this relationship hard?

KUHN: Well, they have a long history of conflicts and disputes, but they also have a long history of shared cultural roots. There are a lot of people who want to put the past behind them and move ahead, particularly the young people of both countries. They are into each other's music - the K-pop, the J-pop, the cartoons, the movies, the food. And to them, nothing is more natural than shelving the disputes and looking towards the future.

INSKEEP: But there is this history. So what is the problem?

KUHN: Yeah, well, the history is in particular Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. And because they've been unable to resolve these issues, this has spilled over into trade disputes and security disputes. And when the allies can't cooperate, that makes it very difficult for Washington.

INSKEEP: There's a lawsuit that has specifically caused even more strained relations in recent years?

KUHN: That's right. South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that Japanese companies that used forced laborers have to compensate them. The companies wouldn't do it. And so South Korea sort of unilaterally proposed this deal to compensate the laborers through a Korean foundation. The problem is that the three surviving laborers themselves want to be compensated by Japan, not by South Korea. And they want Japan to apologize, but Japan will only restate its past apologies. And Japan's Prime Minister Kishida did not budge on that issue.

INSKEEP: Just to underline this - so relations are strained between two important U.S. allies because of three individuals. That's how many are still alive from this period.

KUHN: Yes, but there are also family members who are plaintiffs in these cases for compensation.

INSKEEP: OK, so in spite of this strain, the two prime ministers met today. And what did they resolve?

KUHN: Well, the steps were pretty much as expected. They're going to resume reciprocal visits by the leaders, which have been on hold for 12 years until today. They're going to resume security dialogues, normalize intelligence sharing and move to clear up these trade disputes. And they emphasized that they've got to cooperate in dealing with security threats, such as the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile test this morning.

INSKEEP: So what does it mean for the United States that the two sides are still meeting, even if they have not fully resolved their disputes from the past?

KUHN: Well, the Biden administration is going to be happy about this. It claims that Asia policy is a priority, and working through its allies is the way it wants to do it. And so for decades, it's been nudging these allies to set aside their disputes and focus on security issues. Now, next month, President Yoon of South Korea will head to Washington for a state visit with President Biden, and if he can show Biden that he delivered something that Washington has wanted for a long time, that could put him in a good position and earn him some political capital in Washington.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, South Korea. Thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.