Kishida, Yoon hold talks, agree to improve Japan-S Korea ties

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol have held their first one-on-one talks, according to their governments, with both sides agreeing on the need to improve relations soured by feuds over Japanese wartime abuses on the Korean peninsula.

The informal meeting took place in New York City on Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

It marked the first talks between the leaders of the neighbouring countries since 2019.

“We took the first step toward producing tangible results,” a South Korean presidential official told reporters in New York City, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. “After two years and 10 months, despite the existence of various disputes between South Korea and Japan, the two leaders met and took the first step toward a resolution. That is why it was highly significant.”

Japan and South Korea ties are at their lowest in decades.

The latest tensions flared up in 2018 when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese firms, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, to compensate 14 Koreans for their forced labour during World War II, when Korea was a Japanese colony. That same year, then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in also dismantled a bilateral fund set up to compensate Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the war.

Japan, which insists the issues have been resolved in a 1965 treaty that normalised relations, responded by imposing restrictions on critical chemical exports to South Korea. Seoul, too, downgraded trade ties with Tokyo, while South Koreans launched a damaging boycott of Japanese goods.

The tensions raised concerns in the United States, with analysts saying it could threaten security cooperation at a time when North Korea has stepped up weapons tests, and undermine Washington’s efforts to build an Indo-Pacific alliance to counter China’s growing global influence.

Moon and then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in China in December 2019, holding “candid” discussions on their “substantive differences”, according to officials, but relations remained frosty.

Hopes for a thaw emerged when Yoon took office in May.

The conservative president has promised to break with his Democratic predecessor’s policies and improve ties with Japan, describing Tokyo as a partner in tackling global challenges amid the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine as well as North Korea enacting a law authorising preemptive nuclear strikes.

During their Wednesday meeting, Yoon and Kishida “agreed on the need to improve bilateral relations by resolving pending issues, and agreed to instruct their diplomats to accelerate talks between them to that end,” said a spokesperson for the South Korean president in a written briefing. “The two leaders shared serious concern about North Korea’s nuclear program, including its recent legalisation of nuclear arms and the possibility of a seventh nuclear test, and agreed to cooperate closely with the international community to respond to it,” said Lee Jae-myoung.

The meeting lasted 30 minutes in a conference building close to the UN headquarters, he added.

US President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida meet during a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2022.
US President Joe Biden, centre, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, meet during a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2022 [File: Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters]

Japan’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said the two leaders “shared the need to bring back the sound bilateral relationship with the resolution of various issues” and also confirmed the importance of promoting bilateral and trilateral cooperation involving the US since “Japan and South Korea are important neighbors for each other under the current strategic environment”.

It was not immediately clear if the two leaders discussed specific steps to resolve the historical issues.

Analysts described the meeting as a breakthrough, with previous attempts at arranging a summit having failed.

Yoon had invited Kishida to his inauguration, but the Japanese foreign minister attended, while efforts to arrange a summit during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Asia in May and a NATO meeting in Madrid in June also failed. Japan’s Kyodo news agency, however, said that the two leaders did chat briefly when they encountered each other on the sidelines of the NATO meeting.

“Just the fact that the summit was held is a diplomatic accomplishment for Yoon and Kishida,” said Leif Eric -Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“However, both governments still need to put in the work as it will take much more than a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations to repair the bilateral relationship. Seoul needs to untie the legal and domestic political knots over wartime compensation while Tokyo should show greater efforts for historical reconciliation and cooperation on trade,” he said in emailed comments. “Washington will be supportive because more robust Korea-Japan relations will contribute to economic growth, regional security, and defense of the international order.”