SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The leaders of South Korea and Japan agreed to speed up efforts to repair ties damaged by Japan’s previous colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula as they held their countries’ first summit talks in nearly three years on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly- and, both governments announced on Thursday.
The meeting came after Tokyo denied an earlier announcement by Seoul that they had agreed on a summit, in a sign of the delicate nature of their current relationship.
During their 30-minute meeting in New York on Wednesday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shared the need to improve bilateral relations and agreed to instruct their diplomats to intensify talks on the matter, Yoon’s office said in a statement.
Kishida’s office confirmed the meeting at the hotel. A separate statement from Japan’s foreign ministry said the two leaders agreed to promote cooperation between the two countries, as well as with the United States. The leaders are said to share the need to restore healthy relationships.
Yoon’s office said the two leaders also jointly expressed serious concerns over North Korea’s recent laws allowing preemptive use of nuclear weapons under certain conditions and North Korea’s reported move to conduct its first nuclear test in five years. Japan’s foreign ministry said Kishida and Yoon agreed to further cooperate in their response to North Korea.
Both the South Korean and Japanese governments said Yoon and Kishida agreed to continue communicating with each other. But it was not immediately known how significant the two leaders’ talks could be to address major obstacles in the bilateral relationship, which suffered its worst setback in years when the two countries were governed by Yoon and Kishida’s predecessors.
In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that two Japanese companies – Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – must compensate Koreans who were forced to work during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial occupation. The companies and the Japanese government rejected the rulings, arguing that all compensation issues had already been settled under a 1965 agreement that normalized bilateral relations and included Tokyo providing Seoul with millions of dollars in economic aid and loans.
The dispute has led the two governments to downgrade each other’s trade status, and Seoul has threatened to abandon an intelligence-sharing agreement. Former Korean forced laborers and their supporters, for their part, advocated the forced sale of Japanese companies’ assets in South Korea.
It is unclear whether Wednesday’s summit will make progress on the issue, as litigants argue that Japanese companies must first agree to South Korean court rulings if they want to resolve the legal disputes.
The strained ties have complicated the US’s push to strengthen its trilateral security alliance with Seoul and Tokyo – two of its key regional allies where it deploys a combined 80,000 troops – to better deal with China’s growing influence and North Korea’s nuclear threats.
South Korea and Japan have been seeking better ties since the May inauguration of Yoon, who has publicly called for improved ties with Tokyo and stronger Seoul-Tokyo-Washington security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.
But when Yoon’s government announced last week what it called a planned summit between Yoon and Kishida in New York, Tokyo officials responded that there had been no agreement to hold the summit.
The Yoon-Kishida meeting was the first summit between the countries since December 2019, when then South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in China on the sidelines of the South Korea-Japan-China Summit.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.