11 July 2024

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held their first one-on-one talks on Wednesday and agreed on the need to improve relations dogged by historical disputes.

The meeting took place in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, the first such talks between leaders of the two countries since 2019.

Yoon, who took office in May, has been keen to improve relations with Tokyo, which have been plagued by disputes stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean peninsula, at a time when both countries face North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats. Japan has also stressed the importance of strategic cooperation.

“The two leaders agreed on the need to improve relations by resolving pending issues, for which they agreed to accelerate diplomatic talks while continuing discussions between themselves,” Yoon’s deputy spokesperson, Lee Jae-myoung, said in a statement.

Lee said the leaders shared serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, including its recent law authorizing first use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of a resumption of nuclear testing for the first time since 2017.

Both sides described the meeting, which lasted 30 minutes, as “informal”.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Hikariko Ono said the two leaders “shared the need to bring back the sound bilateral relationship with the resolution of various issues.”

She said they agreed to develop relations “in a future-oriented manner based on the foundation of the friendly and cooperative relationship that both countries built since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965.”

Yoon and Kishida first met on the sidelines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid in June, and also at a trilateral summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, but Wednesday’s meeting was the first time they had sat down for one-on-one talks.

At stake are South Korean court orders for a seizure of assets of Japanese companies accused of not compensating some of their colonial-era laborers.

Tokyo says the issue of compensation was settled under a 1965 treaty normalizing diplomatic ties and providing South Korea with economic assistance, and has warned of serious repercussions if the orders are enforced.

Japan has urged South Korea to present a solution, and a Seoul official said it would devise a “realistic, feasible proposal” that can win consent from both victims and Tokyo.

But the Yoon administration’s efforts to gather opinions from victims, lawyers and experts via a public-private panel have faced a setback with the victims’ group refusing to attend its meetings since last month.

The testy relations were highlighted ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, with Kishida considering calling it off after being upset by an announcement from Yoon’s office of their planned summit, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily reported.

An official at Yoon’s office declined comment on the report.