News analysis

Yoon-Kishida talks a step towards mending ties

Leaders of S. Korea and Japan agree on need to improve ties by resolving pending issues

SEOUL - South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sat down for one-on-one talks for the first time in New York on Wednesday, in what is viewed as a positive step towards mending ties that had frayed over issues related to their shared history.

South Korea's presidential office said the two leaders "agreed on the need to improve bilateral relations by resolving pending issues" and to accelerate talks among their diplomats. The two leaders also "shared serious concern" over North Korea's growing nuclear arsenal and agreed to work closely with the international community to respond to the threat.

Noting that the two countries are ''important neighbours for each other'', Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the leaders shared the need to restore a ''sound bilateral relationship'' by addressing various issues. The two countries have longstanding disputes over the Dokdo/Takeshima islets and over wartime forced labour by the Japanese, which escalated into a trade war that led to South Koreans boycotting Japan and its goods.

Mr Yoon, who took office in May, has pledged to improve ties with Japan as he sought to align more closely with the United States and boost trilateral cooperation.

His meeting with Mr Kishida, held on the sidelines of the latest United Nations General Assembly session, was the first South Korea-Japan summit in three years.

Both sides described the 30-minute session as ''informal''.

South Korea called it a ''summit'', while Japan, which reportedly was reluctant to commit to the meeting and upset that Seoul had unilaterally announced it to the media, called it a ''meeting''.

Experts noted that South Korea seemed more eager and proactive, whereas Japan came across as cautious with reservations.

Dr Lee Myon-woo of the Sejong Institute think-tank noted that both leaders are struggling with declining approval ratings at home. But Mr Yoon, having been a prosecutor who fought for fairness and justice his entire career, ''thinks he should do what's right''.

''So he's trying to approach Japan as much as he can,'' Dr Lee added.

''One of the deficiencies in this bilateral relationship is the lack of trust, and in order
to regain some confidence, they need to meet and talk.''

However, the controversy surrounding the meeting and how brief it was has drawn flak in Seoul, with the country's main opposition Democratic Party (DP) calling it ''humiliating'' and ''servile'' for South Korea. DP's Parliament leader Park Hong-keun said the meeting happened due to ''one-sided courtship'', noting that no South Korean flag was put up during the session and that Mr Kishida had reportedly ''expressed displeasure and asked not to meet''.

Ewha Womans University's associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley said no matter how brief, the fact that they met was already a ''diplomatic accomplishment for Yoon and Kishida''.

''However, both governments still need to put in the work, as it will take much more than a meeting on the sidelines of the UN to repair the bilateral relationship,'' he added.

''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.''

Dr Lee noted that the Obama administration had been proactive in pushing for better ties between the two US allies, but it is not known if the US had exerted any diplomatic pressure on Japan to meet South Korea this time.

Washington will be supportive of efforts to reconcile, said Prof Easley.

''More robust Korea-Japan relations will contribute to economic growth, regional security and defence of the international order,'' he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2022, with the headline Yoon-Kishida talks a step towards mending ties. Subscribe