Japanese ex-PM Aso to visit South Korea to improve ties

Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso walks towards his flight at Narita International Airport in Narita, near Tokyo Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, on his way to South Korea. Aso left for Seoul on Wednesday to meet with South Korean officials as the two countries try to improve ties badly strained by Japanese wartime atrocities. (Kyodo News via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

TOKYO (AP) — Former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso left for Seoul on Wednesday to meet with South Korean officials as the two countries try to improve ties that were badly strained by Japanese wartime atrocities.

At the center of the disputes between the two countries are South Korean court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to compensate wartime forced Korean laborers. The Japanese government and the companies have refused to comply with the rulings, saying all compensation issues have been settled under a 1965 normalization treaty and accusing South Korea of violating the international law.

But ties have started showing signs of improvement since South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's conservative government took power in May. As key Asian allies to the United States, having a strained relationship also poses a concern for their security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region as it faces growing threats from China and North Korea.

Gaffe-prone Aso is also known for his family business’ wartime use of forced laborers.

In 2008, wartime documents surfaced showing that Korean forced laborers were used at Aso's grandfather’s mine, from which he has distanced himself. Aso kept mum when Japan’s Health and Welfare Ministry acknowledged that other wartime documents showed that the Aso family mine in Fukuoka, southern Japan, also used 300 British, Dutch and Australian prisoners from April 1945 through Japan’s surrender four months later.

The trip comes days after a crowd surge in the South Korean capital, Seoul, killed over 150 people. Yoon declared a national mourning period Sunday.

Kyodo News Agency said Aso was to meet with Yoon later Wednesday.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Aso is not representing the government, but is visiting South Korea as the head of a non-partisan Japan-South Korea friendship organization made up of political and business representatives.

Matsuno declined to confirm reports that Aso may meet with Yoon, and denied that Aso was carrying a letter from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Yoon.

Another veteran ruling lawmaker, Fukushiro Nukaga, who heads a group of parliamentarians promoting friendship between the two neighbors, was also due to visit South Korea, Kyodo News agency reported.

Nukaga is expected to meet with Yoon on Friday.

Matsuno said earlier Tuesday that exchanges of lawmakers and private sector representatives between the two countries are a “meaningful” way of supporting bilateral relations. He said the two sides need to bring their relations back to “a healthy state based on friendship and cooperation” that the two countries have built since the normalization of their ties.

“We intend to continue to closely communicate with the South Korean government,” he added.