Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Picture: REUTERS
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Picture: REUTERS

Tokyo — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that South Korea is its “most important neighbour” and that the two share basic values, taking a conciliatory tone towards the country that has been locked in a bitter row with Tokyo for over a year.

The comment comes after South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week proposed the two countries work together to resolve the issue of wartime forced labourers, and called Japan  “our closest neighbour”.

It follows some fence-mending steps in recent months, including Seoul’s reversal of its decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, and Tokyo’s partial easing of curbs on the export of hi-tech materials to South Korea.

“Under an increasingly severe security environment in Northeast Asia, diplomacy with neighbouring countries is extremely important,” Abe told parliament in his policy speech.

“Essentially, South Korea is the most important neighbour with which Japan shares basic values and strategic interests.”

In a parliamentary speech in October, Abe referred to South Korea as an “important neighbour”.

But Abe and Moon met in China in December and emphasised the need to improve ties, officials from both sides said.

Moon told a news conference last week South Korea would co-operate for the success of this year’s Olympic Games in Japan, and that he hoped the sporting event would provide a good opportunity to fundamentally improve ties.

Relations between Japan and South Korea, two of the US’s major Asian allies, plunged to their lowest point in decades after South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese firms in 2018 to compensate some wartime forced labourers.

Japan says the matter was settled by a 1965 treaty that normalised bilateral relations following Japan's 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula.

“I sincerely hope South Korea honours the commitments between the two counties and works towards building future-orientated relations,” Abe said in his Monday speech, reiterating that the onus is on Seoul to put ties back on an even keel.