South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met in Tokyo on Thursday in the first full-scale summit between the neighbouring countries in 12 years. The two leaders say they hope to transform a relationship deadlocked since the end of World War ll. South Korean public opinion is less enthusiastic.
Japan and South Korea on Thursday announced the relaxation of trade controls and a resumption of frequent reciprocal visits, as President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Tokyo on a trip intended to improve ties.
"At today's summit, I believe that there will be fruitful discussions that can transform Korea-Japan relations, which have been at a standstill, into a relationship of cooperation and mutually beneficial development," Yoon said.
Kishida said the two sides had "agreed on the resumption of shuttle diplomacy by leaders of Japan and South Korea.
Japanese media said this could include Kishida inviting Yoon to the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, and then visiting Seoul.
Some local analysts remain skeptical, with an article in The Japan Times suggesting that Yoon does not have the necessary political clout to wring concessions from Japan.
Legacy of Japanese warcrimes
Relations deteriorated in 2018 after South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to compensate victims of wartime forced labour.
Japan was Korea's colonial ruler for 35 years, between 1910 and 1945.
Tokyo rejected the 2018 ruling, arguing that wartime and colonial-era disputes had been settled in 1965, when diplomatic ties were normalised and Tokyo gave Seoul massive loans and economic aid.
Seoul recently announced a plan for a foundation which would accept contributions from Japan and be used to compensate Korean victims without Tokyo's direct involvement.
A recent Gallup poll showed nearly 60 percent of South Koreans oppose that plan.
"The Yoon Suk Yeol government is so anxious for the diplomatic achievement of mending relations with Japan that it is forcing an unfair choice upon the victims, telling them to take donations, not compensation," says Kim Young-hwan of the Center for Historical Truth and Justice, a Seoul-based civic group, interviewed by American broadcaster National Public Radio (NPR).
North Korean missile message
In a further effort to improve relations, Tokyo's trade ministry said Thursday it would restore the status quo after nearly four years of restricting strategic exports to South Korea, notably of key industrial materials needed in the production of semiconductors.
South Korea has promised to withdraw a complaint against Japan filed with the World Trade Organisation.
North Korea, meanwhile, fired a long-range ballistic missile just hours ahead of Yoon's arrival.
The South Korean leader said the need for cooperation was growing as the "values of liberal democracy, which have served as the basis for peace and prosperity in the international community, face serious challenges.
"As seen from North Korea's long-range ballistic missile launch this morning before I left for Tokyo, North Korea's ever-increasing nuclear missile capacity poses a great threat to peace and stability," he said.
"Korea and Japan must closely cooperate in solidarity to wisely deal with these illegal threats."
Washington welcomes warm spell
Despite the outward signs of warmer ties, the countries still face significant challenges, warns Park Won-gon, of Seoul's Ewha University.
"It is significant that Korea-Japan relations are finally starting to normalise, but it 's a bit complicated to predict the outcome," he told the French news agency AFP.
"It all comes down to at what level Prime Minister Kishida will be willing to apologise for the history."
Japan has said it continues to endorse apologies for wartime acts, but many in South Korea feel that falls short and oppose Yoon's compensation plan.
Internationally, the rapprochement has been welcomed, particularly in Washington.
A potential thaw in ties between these two key US allies could yield big dividends for the Biden administration and its Asia policy, according to NPR.
President Yoon is due to make an official visit to the United States next month.