Japan's prime minister will return looted Korean royal documents during a summit with his South Korean counterpart this week, officials said Tuesday. The move is an apparent effort to boost relations between the Asian neighbors.
Japan colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945, and many older Koreans still harbor deep resentment over its rule. Bilateral ties suffered again this year due to a series of spats over the occupation.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda arrived in Seoul late Tuesday with five volumes of Korean royal documents that his country took away during its rule. Noda was to return the books to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday, according to Lee's office.
The documents are part of the 1,205 historical volumes that Japan agreed to hand back to South Korea when Noda's predecessor, Naoto Kan, met with Lee last year. Noda took office last month.
Noda's visit comes two months after South Korea banned three conservative Japanese lawmakers from entering the country after they arrived at a Seoul airport with a plan to travel near islets at the center of territorial and historical disputes between the countries. Earlier, Tokyo's defense report claimed for the seventh straight year that the islets belong to Japan, drawing protests from Seoul.
The two countries also remain at odds over Seoul's offer to hold talks on Japan's compensation of Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japan during the colonial rule. Japan declined, saying the matter was settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized ties between Japan and South Korea.
Despite their troubled history, Seoul and Tokyo remain closely tied economically and are key U.S. allies in the region. Both countries are members of stalled six-nation negotiations on ending North Korea's nuclear program in return for aid.
The books' return appears to be Noda's symbolic goodwill gesture toward South Korea, Seoul National University professor and international relations expert Park Cheol-hee said. "The return should be seen as a gift with a political intention," he said.
Lee In-deog, head of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul's Kookmin University, agreed, saying Japan understands the importance of South Korea as a strategic partner in the region.