Home Japanese values Yoon and Kishida meet in New York – Not a summit but a start

Yoon and Kishida meet in New York – Not a summit but a start

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Yoon and Kishida meet in New York – Not a summit but a start

Posted on September 23, 2022

The meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on September 21 was mostly marked by the fact that it took place.

It was a brief exchange – about 30 minutes – that took place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The two governments couldn’t even agree on how to describe the talks – with the Japanese calling it a “discussion” and the Koreans a “meeting”. According to an account by the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, it was President Yoon who spoke the most and, basically, the two leaders could only agree on the principle of the need to mend the tattered ties between Korea and Japan.

Nevertheless, this meeting was a minor breakthrough. It has been almost three years since a Korean and Japanese leader met face to face. Since the Korean presidential election, which brought to power a conservative administration committed to reversing the trend of deteriorating relations, contacts between the two governments have intensified. The two foreign ministers had substantive talks in Japan, then in New York before the meeting of the two leaders. But there is no substitute for establishing personal contact at the management level.

Strategically, Korea and Japan have grown closer, sharing broad agreement on how to handle the North Korean threat, the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and an Indo-Pacific regional framework set by common values ​​of democracy and government. of the law. In this, they align themselves with the Biden administration which has pushed at every opportunity, including in New York, the importance of trilateral cooperation.

True trilateral cooperation, even with strategic imperatives, depends on resolving deep-seated disputes over wartime history and justice. The falling nose reflected the decision of the previous Korean government of Moon Jae-in to effectively dismantle the 2015 agreement on compensation and apologies for Korean women forced into sexual servitude by the Imperial Japanese Army, so-called saying “comfort women”. This was further complicated by the Korean courts’ decision to compel Japanese companies to compensate Korean forced labor used during the war period.

The sword of Damocles now hanging over President Yoon’s efforts to normalize relations is a pending decision by Korean courts to seize the assets of Japanese companies in Korea to pay compensation. The Japanese government has made it clear that this move will lead to a virtual freeze in relations. He insists that this issue was resolved by the 1965 Normalization of Relations Treaty and the accompanying Claims Settlement Agreement which provided loans and grants to Korea, tied to compensation for forced laborers.

The position of the Japanese government has been to ask Korea to make a proposal based on the 1965 agreement and effectively block the seizure of the assets. President Yoon entered office ready to take these steps, including reaffirming the 1965 agreement and urging the courts not to follow through on the asset seizure order. The Yoon administration set up an advisory committee earlier this summer, including outside experts and representatives of workers who filed complaints, to come up with new ideas.

The panel has met four times, so far without a clear outcome. It was blocked mainly on the insistence of the victims that the Japanese companies show remorse, at least with some token payments. One idea that the Korean government is pursuing is the creation of a compensation fund, initially financed by Korean companies that received money from the original 1965 agreement, such as the steel company Posco, an engine of the Korean industrialization fueled by Japanese funds.

There have been serious discussions, even preliminary negotiations, at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa seem to be working hard to find a formula that satisfies both sides.

What is lacking so far is political leadership at the highest level. Both leaders face considerable opposition at home to efforts to improve relations. Chairman Yoon has come under attack for appearing too eager to hold the New York meeting, with the opposition Democratic Party and progressive media accusing him of “humiliating diplomacy”. Prime Minister Kishida was clearly reluctant to hold a brief meeting, apparently angered by the premature announcement of a summit by the Korean government, but also faced with resistance from Japanese conservatives to any compromise.

Yoon and Kishida have limited political leeway. For domestic reasons in both cases, their popularity ratings plummeted. Yoon faces a series of missteps in handling domestic and foreign policy, once seen as his forte, and complaints about his political style. Kishida has been hammered by the controversy surrounding revelations of close ties between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Unification Church, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo over his ties to the organization . The decision to hold a state funeral for Abe is also unpopular.

Despite these constraints, there is a way out of this apparent impasse. It is possible to imagine a deal on forced labor – and it must involve not just Korean concessions but also Japanese movement, in the form of giving free rein to Japanese companies to contribute to a compensation fund. This could then form the basis for a real summit later this year, perhaps when the two leaders attend regional rallies.

Outside of Japanese right-wing circles, considerable opinion in Japan favors a compromise and criticizes Kishida’s cautious approach so far, which has only made Yoon’s efforts more difficult.

“It would not be a good idea to push the Yoon administration to its limits as it tries to find a ROK-led solution to this problem,” the business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun wrote on Sept. 23.

“Both leaders must not let their calculations and internal political motivations dictate their policies for managing the relationship,” the Asahi Shimbun warned.

And there is some small evidence that the brief encounter in New York, however described, may have had some impact. According to the Asahi, Kishida told his aides after the meeting, “They showed that they were ready to solve problems. We’ll have to see what they can come up with in the future.

For Koreans, the shoe relies heavily on Japanese feet. “We urge Japan to come to terms with its history and reflect on its wartime atrocities,” the Korea Times said.

The coming months are both an opportunity for leadership, or its failure.

Daniel Sneider is a Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies and International Politics at Stanford University and a Nonresident Emeritus Fellow of KEI. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

Image from versello’s photostream on Creative Commons flickr.