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Japan, SKorea agree to mature partnership

SEOUL, January 12 – Japan and South Korea, putting aside thorny historical and territorial disputes, agreed on Monday to work together on issues ranging from combating recession to rebuilding Afghanistan.

After an hour of summit talks, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and President Lee Myung-Bak vowed to develop a "future-oriented, mature partnership," Seoul\’s presidential office said.

"It is unprecedented that leaders from Japan and South Korea see each other so often and agree to cooperate in broad areas like this," Aso told a joint news conference afterwards.

He and Lee have met every month since October at diplomatic events.

Relations have often been strained by territorial disputes and lingering bitterness at Japan\’s harsh 1910-1945 rule over Korea.

The leaders said the two countries would resume working-level talks on a possible free trade agreement. The discussions and other issues had been in limbo since 2004, due to repeated visits by then-Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to a controversial Tokyo war shrine.

On Monday the leaders "did not touch on any issues on history," Aso said.

"There have been difficult times (in the relationship) due to various reasons, but when we look back we see there was never a time when we moved backward, though there were times when we wavered," Lee said.

But analysts warned the new relationship may be more fragile than anticipated.

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"They just shelve pending issues because of the time" of economic difficulties, said Hidekazu Kawai, professor at Tokyo\’s Gakushuin University.

"If some politician makes a gaffe, the new relationship would fail altogether."

Aso has in the past angered other Asian countries by praising elements of Japanese imperialism. But since becoming prime minister he has tried not to irritate neighbours.

He and Lee also agreed to closely coordinate policies to counter the global downturn threatening both their economies.

"In particular, we agreed to closely cooperate on reforming our financial systems, drawing up macroeconomic policies and in dealing with protective trade blocs," the South Korean president said.

The countries\’ central banks last month announced an agreement to expand a yen-won swap arrangement to 30 billion dollars from three billion.

In a first move to increase cooperation and cut Seoul\’s 30 billion dollar trade deficit with Tokyo in 2008, Lee said South Korea had agreed to actively support Japanese investment in its parts and materials sector.

On North Korea\’s nuclear weapons, Lee stressed that Seoul and Tokyo "must continue working together closely in the framework of the six-way talks," according to a Japanese official at the closed-door talks.

They are members of aid-for-disarmament talks also linking North Korea, Russia, China and the United States.

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Japan and South Korea will begin discussing joint development projects in Afghanistan, where they have already separately started vocational training and agricultural support, the Japanese official said on condition of anonymity.

They will set up a joint panel of experts to study more global issues in which they could increase their influence.

Any agreement on a joint reconstruction programme in Afghanistan would be the first of its kind for the two countries, the official said.

"We agreed to build Japan-South Korea relations that would allow us to make international contributions together," Aso told the press conference before meeting lawmakers and flying home early afternoon.

"Particularly, we agreed to have concrete cooperation in Afghanistan, which is a significant country for the world\’s security."

South Korea in 2007 withdrew its troops from Afghanistan but will send a civilian team this month to see if it can do more to rebuild the war-ravaged country.

Asia\’s largest and fourth largest economies also agreed to start negotiations on a nuclear energy pact, Japanese officials said.

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