Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have held their first one-on-one meetings, according to their governments, with both sides agreeing that relations affected by feuds over Japanese abuses of war on the Korean Peninsula must be improved were.
The informal meeting took place on Wednesday in New York City on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
It was the first meeting between the heads of state and government of neighboring countries since 2019.
“We’ve taken the first step towards achieving tangible results,” a South Korean presidential official told reporters in New York City, according to Yonhap news agency in Seoul. “After two years and ten months, despite various disputes between South Korea and Japan, the two heads of state and government met and took the first step towards a solution. That is why it was of great importance.”
Relations between Japan and South Korea are at their lowest level in decades.
Recent tensions rose in 2018 when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, to compensate 14 Koreans for their forced labor during World War II, when Korea was a Japanese colony. In the same year, then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in dismantled a Japanese-financed foundation that was intended to help Korean survivors of Japanese military brothels from wartime.
Japan, which insists that the problems were resolved in a 1965 agreement that normalized relations, responded by restricting critical chemical exports to South Korea. Seoul also downgraded trade relations with Tokyo, while South Koreans initiated a damaging boycott of Japanese goods.
Tensions raised concerns in the United States. Analysts said they could jeopardize security cooperation at a time when North Korea has stepped up weapons testing 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 and, according to officials, had “honest” discussions about their “significant differences,” but relations remained frosty.
Hopes of a thaw flared when Yoon took office in May.
The conservative president has promised to break with the policies of his democratic predecessor and improve relations with Japan by describing Tokyo as a partner in overcoming global challenges amid the consequences of the Russian war in Ukraine and North Korea, which includes a law on Approval of preventive nuclear energy passes strikes.
During their meeting on Wednesday, Yoon and Kishida “agreed on the need to improve bilateral relations by resolving pending issues and agreed to instruct their diplomats to speed up talks between them to that end,” a South Korean spokesperson said Presidents in a written briefing. “The two heads of state and government shared serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, including the recent legalization of nuclear weapons and the possibility of a seventh nuclear test, and agreed to work closely with the international community to respond,” said Lee Jae-myoung.
The meeting lasted 30 minutes in a conference building near UN headquarters, he added.
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said that the two heads of state and government “shared the need to restore solid bilateral relations by resolving various issues,” and also confirmed the importance of promoting bilateral and trilateral cooperation involving the US because” Japan and South Korea are important neighbors for each other in the current strategic environment.”
It was not immediately clear whether the two heads of state and government were discussing specific steps to solve the historic problems.
Analysts described the meeting as a breakthrough as previous attempts to organize a summit have failed.
Yoon had invited Kishida to his inauguration, but the Japanese foreign minister attended, while efforts to organize a summit during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Asia in May and a NATO meeting in Madrid in June also failed. However, Japanese news agency Kyodo said that the two heads of state and government had a brief chat when they met on the sidelines of the NATO meeting.
“The mere fact that the summit was held is a diplomatic achievement 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 get down to work, as it will take much more than a meeting on the sidelines of the UN to repair bilateral relations. Seoul must unravel the legal and domestic political knots over compensation in times of war, while Tokyo should make greater efforts for historic reconciliation and trade cooperation,” he said in email comments. “Washington will be supportive because more robust relations between Korea and Japan will contribute to economic growth, regional security, and the defense of international order.”