Are they going? Or will they not?
There are conflicting reports on whether Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will meet on the sidelines of the 77th UN General Assembly held in New York this week .
The two leaders at the start of their term, Kishida took power in October 2021, Yoon in May 2022 spoke on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in June, but never held a dedicated bilateral meeting .
Neighboring Northeast Asian democracies are divided by lingering bad blood linked to Japan’s exploitative and often brutal colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 on the peninsula and, more recently, Korea’s retaliatory court ruling of the South in 2018 regarding Japan’s use of forced labor in wartime.
The move predated their two administrations, raising hopes that chilled relations could thaw under Kishida and Yoon. So far, those hopes have been largely chimerical.
Conservative Yoon, who comes from a different party than his predecessor, is seeking a bilateral reset. But Kishida sticks to the policies of his two predecessors, who were from the same party, the long-standing conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Both face local political constraints.
Yoon, prone to low approval ratings, has to tread carefully to avoid angering his audience, which is trigger-sensitive when it comes to Japanese questions. And Kishida must exercise caution as he approaches the upcoming state funeral of a murdered predecessor, under whose administration bilateral relations froze.
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and his South Korean counterpart Park Jin met in New York on Monday to discuss outstanding issues. Hayashi “welcomed working-level discussions on the issue” according to Japanese media, while Park called for “sincere efforts” from Japan, according to Korean media.
But will the leaders really sit down together to discuss the very many points that could constitute a heavy agenda? “Details of the meeting, including the date and agenda, have not been confirmed, but South Korean officials maintain that it will go ahead as agreed,” Yonhap reported.
Yonhap’s Japanese counterpart Kyodo was more reserved.
Regarding a possible summit, Kyodo quoted Hayashi as saying “Nothing has been decided yet” interpreted by the agency as “stopping before clarifying whether the matter came up during their talks”.
Much is at stake. On the security front, reinforced trilateral military cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington is essential. Currently, all Japanese and South Korean defense cooperation is ad hoc, with the exception of a limited intelligence-sharing agreement brokered by the United States.
In trade, Japan is the leading economy and the de facto guardian of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade body that South Korea wants to join.
More broadly, Seoul and Tokyo have similar interests that would benefit from shared voice and action in global forums.
They are democratic middle powers surrounded by authoritarian, nuclear-armed China, North Korea and Russia. They are manufacturing powers whose economies are both complementary and competitive.
And they are both subject to collateral damage from the crossfire exchanged between their strategic ally, the United States, and their main trading partner, China.
The heart of the problem
Kishida is widely considered to be less warmongering than his late predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Likewise, a key difference in the political philosophies of Yoon and his predecessor Moon Jae-in is the former’s strong desire for better relations with Japan.
Under Abe and Moon, Seoul-Tokyo relations have arguably sunk to their lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965. Moon unilaterally canceled a supposedly “final and irreversible” 2015 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo on comfort women in 2017.
Then, in 2018, a Korean court found Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel liable for using forced Korean labor in their factories near the end of World War II. Invoking humanitarian law rather than Korean law, the court ordered the seizure and liquidation of the company’s assets to compensate the victims.
The previously barely rooted bilateral trust has evaporated.
Abe, already angered by Moon’s unilateral decision in 2017, was furious with the 2018 decision, which Tokyo said ignored a landmark agreement that had normalized diplomatic relations.
As part of the deal, Japan had paid Korea hundreds of millions of dollars in colonial-era reparations that had been settled, virtually to the last dollar, in previous negotiations.
The Korean government at the time, however, did not pay the Japanese money to the victims, but instead used it for economic development.
Following the court’s seizure of Japanese assets, relations soured as Tokyo slowed the export of key semiconductor materials to Korea and removed Seoul from its “white list” of preferred trading partners. Seoul hit back with its own “whitelist” as the Korean public launched a boycott of Japanese goods.
While Tokyo’s trade restrictions have proven to be a ‘punch’, semiconductor manufacturing in South Korea has not been affected, Asia Times understands that if Japanese assets still in legal escrow in Korea are liquidated, Japan’s retaliation will be severe.
This could extend to divestment and financial sanctions, punitive measures that would have a disastrous impact on US-led diplomacy in the region, not to mention regional supply chains.
Problem for Yoon, no constitutional mechanism exists for the president to overturn a court ruling. A panel of experts has been set up to advise Yoon on the matter and there is ongoing talk of companies benefiting from the 1965 treaty by paying out money to victims.
However, Tokyo did not want to move and sees the ball as in the Korean camp.
In the meantime, a very high degree of opacity hangs over the reasons why the seized assets, mainly securities, have not been liquidated four years after the 2018 judgment. This had been widely expected in August but did not materialize, suggesting possible unofficial political pressure on the judiciary.
It’s a particularly thorny issue for Yoon given his low 30% approval rating and the usually incendiary public emotion towards Japan.
But it’s also tricky for Kishida given that the state funeral of Abe who, despite his stance on Korea, was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and wielded huge influence in the LDP will not take place. before September 27.
Category: Japan, Korea