The meeting between South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on September 21 was notable mainly for the fact that it took place.
It was a brief exchange – some 30 minutes – taking place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The two governments could not even agree on how to describe the talks – the Japanese terming it a “chat” and the Koreans a “meeting.” According to an account in the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, President Yoon did most of the talking and substantively, the two leaders could only agree in principle on the need to repair the tattered ties between Korea and Japan.
Nonetheless, 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, bringing into office a conservative administration pledged to reverse the downturn in relations, there has been an intensifying pace of contacts between the two governments. The two foreign ministers have held substantive talks in Japan, and again in New York prior to the meeting of the two leaders. But there is no substitute for establishing personal contact at the leadership level.
On a strategic level, both Korea and Japan have drawn closer, sharing broad agreement on how to handle the North Korean threat, on the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, and on an Indo-Pacific regional framework defined by common values of democracy and rule of law. In this, they are aligned with the Biden administration which has pushed at every opportunity, including in New York, the importance of trilateral cooperation.
True trilateral cooperation, even with the strategic imperatives, depends on resolving the profound disputes over wartime history and justice. The nosedive reflected the decision of the previous Korean government of Moon Jae-in to effectively dismantle the 2015 agreement on compensation and apology for the Korean women forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese Imperial Army, the so-called ‘comfort women.’ This was further complicated by the decision of Korean courts to compel Japanese companies to compensate Korean forced labor used during wartime period.
The sword of Damocles now hanging over the efforts by President Yoon to normalize ties is a pending decision by Korean courts to seize the assets of the Japanese firms in Korea to pay compensation. The Japanese government has made it clear that move would bring relations to a virtual freeze. It insists that this issue was resolved by the 1965 treaty on normalization of relations and the accompanying agreement on settlement of claims which provided loans and grants to Korea, tied to compensation for forced laborers.
The Japanese government position has been to demand Korea make a proposal based on the 1965 agreement and effectively block the seizure of assets. President Yoon came into office prepared to take those steps, including reaffirming the 1965 agreement and pressing the courts not to move ahead on the asset seizure order. The Yoon administration created an advisory panel earlier this summer, including outside experts and representatives of the laborers who filed suit, with the aim of coming up with fresh ideas.
The panel has met four times, so far with no clear outcome. It has been stalled mostly on the insistence of the victims that Japanese firms demonstrate remorse, at least with some symbolic payments. One idea that the Korean government has been pursuing is the creation of a compensation fund, initially funded by Korean firms that received money from the original 1965 agreement, such as the steel firm Posco, an engine of Korean industrialization fueled by Japanese funding.
There has been serious discussion, perhaps even preliminary negotiations, at the foreign ministry level. 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 missing, so far, is political leadership at the highest level. Both leaders face considerable opposition at home to efforts to improve relations. President Yoon was assailed for seeming to be overeager to hold the New York meeting, with the opposition Democratic Party and progressive media assailing him for “humiliating diplomacy.” Prime Minister Kishida was clearly reluctant to even hold a brief meeting, reportedly irritated by the Korean government’s premature announcement of a summit but also facing resistance from Japanese conservatives to any compromise.
Both Yoon and Kishida have limited political maneuvering room. For domestic reasons in both cases, their popularity ratings have plummeted. Yoon is dealing with a series of missteps managing domesctic and foreign policy, once seen as his strong suit, 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 due to his ties to that organization. The decision to hold a state funeral for Abe is also unpopular.
Despite these constraints, there is a pathway out of this apparent impasse. It is possible to imagine an agreement on forced labor – and it must involve not only Korean concessions but also Japanese movement, in the form of giving Japanese companies free rein to contribute to a compensation fund. That can then form the basis for a true summit later this year, perhaps when the two leaders will attend regional gatherings.
Outside of Japanese rightwing circles, there is considerable opinion in Japan favoring a compromise and critical of Kishida’s cautious approach so far, which has only made Yoon’s efforts more difficult.
“It would not be a good idea to drive the Yoon administration into a corner as it tries to work out a ROK-led resolution to the issue,” the business daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun editorialized on September 23.
“The two leaders should not allow their domestic political calculations and motivations to dictate their policies for dealing with the relationship,” admonished the Asahi Shimbun.
And there is some small evidence that the brief encounter in New York, however it is described, may have had some impact. According to the Asahi, Kishida told aides after the meeting: “They showed that they are willing to resolve the issues. We will have to see what they can come up with in the future.”
For Koreans, the shoe is largely on the Japanese feet. “We urge Japan to face up to its history squarely and reflect on its wartime atrocities,” the Korea Times opined.
The next few months are both an opportunity for leadership, or for its failure.
Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer in East Asian Studies and International Policy at Stanford University and a KEI Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Image from versello’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.