Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. Image: Twitter

SEOUL – Will they? Or won’t they?

There are conflicting reports on whether Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will summit on the sidelines of the 77th UN General Assembly held in New York this week.

The two early-in-their-term leaders – Kishida took power in October 2021, Yoon in May 2022 – spoke on the sidelines of a NATO meeting this June but have never held a dedicated bilateral.

The neighboring Northeast Asian democracies are divided by ongoing bad blood relating to Japan’s exploitative and often brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule over the peninsula and more recently South Korea’s retaliatory legal decision in 2018 over Japan’s use of wartime forced labor.

That decision preceded both of their administrations, leading to hopes that chilled relations might thaw under Kishida and Yoon. So far, those hopes have been largely chimerical.

The conservative Yoon, who comes from a different party than his predecessor, seeks a bilateral reset. But Kishida is sticking to the policy of his two predecessors, who hailed from the same party, the long-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Both face local political constraints.

Yoon, subject to low approval ratings, must tread carefully to avoid angering his public, which is hair-trigger sensitive when it comes to Japanese matters. And Kishida has to tread lightly in the lead-up to the upcoming state funeral of an assassinated 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 pending issues. Hayashi “welcomed working-level talks on the issue” according to Japanese media, while Park called for Japan’s “sincere efforts”, according to Korean media.

But will the leaders actually sit down together to thrash out the many, many items that could make up a packed agenda? “Details of the meeting, including the date and agenda, have not been confirmed, but South Korean officials maintain it will go ahead as agreed upon,” Yonhap reported.

Yonhap’s Japanese counterpart, Kyodo, was more restrained.

Regarding a possible summit, Kyodo quoted Hayashi as saying “Nothing has yet been decided” – interpreted by the agency as “stopping short of clarifying whether the matter was brought up during their talks.”

Much is at stake. On the security front, upgraded trilateral military cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington beckons. Currently, any Japanese and South Korean defense cooperation is ad hoc, bar a limited, US-brokered intelligence-sharing agreement.

On the trade front, Japan is the leading economy – and de facto gate guard – of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade body that South Korea seeks to join.

More broadly, Seoul and Tokyo have similar interests that would benefit from shared voice and action in global fora.

They are democratic middle powers surrounded by authoritarian, nuclear-armed China, North Korea and Russia. They are manufacturing powerhouses with economies that are complementary as well as competitive.

And they are both subject to collateral damage from the crossfire being exchanged between their strategic ally, the United States, and their chief trade partner, China.

Feel the love (not)! South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in (left) shakes hands with Japan’s then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on August 5, 2020. Photo: AFP

The heart of the matter

Kishida is widely seen as being less hawkish 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 plummeted to arguably their lowest level since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1965. Moon unilaterally overturned a supposedly “final and irreversible” 2015 Seoul-Tokyo deal over comfort women in 2017.

Then, in 2018, a Korean court found Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel liable for using Korean forced labor in their plants near the end of World War II. Citing humanitarian, rather than Korean law, the court ordered the seizure and liquidation of corporate assets to pay the victims.

Bilateral trust – hardly deeply entrenched beforehand – evaporated.

Abe, already angered by Moon’s unilateral 2017 move, was livid over the 2018 decision, which Tokyo insisted ignored a landmark deal that had normalized diplomatic relations.

Under the deal, Japan had paid Korea hundreds of millions of dollars in colonial era reparations that had been worked out, virtually to the last dollar, during the prior negotiations.

The Korean government of the time, however, had not paid out the Japanese monies to the victims but used the cash instead for economic development.

Following the court’s seizure of Japanese assets, relations deteriorated as Tokyo slowed the export of key semiconductor materials to Korea and removed Seoul from its “white list” of privileged trade partners. Seoul retaliated with its own “white list” move while the Korean public launched a boycott of Japanese products.

While Tokyo’s trade restrictions proved to be a “shot across the bow” – South Korea’s semiconductor manufacturing was not impacted – Asia Times understands that if the Japanese assets still in Korea’s legal lockup are liquidated, Japan’s retaliation will be severe.

South Korean protesters hold a sign during a weekly anti-Japanese demonstration supporting comfort women who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II, near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on July 24, 2019. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

That could extend to disinvestment and financial sanctions, punitive moves that would have a dire impact on US-led diplomacy in the region, not to mention regional supply chains.

Problematically for Yoon, no constitutional mechanism exists for the president to overturn a court decision. A body of experts has been established to advise Yoon on the issue and there is ongoing talk of corporates who benefitted from the 1965 treaty paying monies to the victims.

However, Tokyo has been unwilling to budge and sees the ball as in Korea’s court.

Meanwhile, there is very considerable opacity hanging over why the seized assets – mainly securities – have not been liquidated four years after the 2018 judgment. That had been widely expected in August but did not transpire, suggesting possible unofficial political pressure on the judiciary.

It is a particularly thorny issue for Yoon given his low popularity ratings – in the low 30% range – and the customarily incendiary public emotion aimed toward Japan.

But it is also tricky for Kishida given that the state funeral for 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 until September 27.

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