All eyes on South Korea's bilateral summit with Japan


South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee at Seoul Air Base, on Sept 18, 2022. - AP

SEOUL (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has embarked on a seven-day trip to Britain, the United States and Canada, but it is his first-ever bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week that observers are keenly watching.

The two sides are set to meet on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Yoon is set to deliver his first address this Tuesday.

Officials said he will outline his vision for increasing solidarity among democratic countries and underscore South Korea's commitment to working with its allies to build peace on the Korean peninsula and jointly respond to North Korea's nuclear threats.

While in New York, he will meet US President Joe Biden to discuss issues such as concerns over how the recently passed US Inflation Reduction Act could impact South Korean carmakers by excluding them from US subsidies.

This will be the second Biden-Yoon meeting since May. The two leaders also held a trilateral summit with Kishida in Madrid in June, agreeing to strengthen three-way cooperation on dealing with North Korea's growing missile and nuclear threats.

Yoon's first solo meeting with Kishida is slated for either Tuesday or Wednesday, according to officials.

This will mark the first South Korea-Japan summit in three years, as ties sank to a new low over historical disputes and a trade spat.

Yoon has pledged to improve ties with Japan as he sought to align more closely with their mutual security ally US and boost trilateral cooperation.

Japan, however, has been vague and non-committal on the summit. When asked about the meeting, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said last Thursday that nothing had been decided.

Various Japanese media outlets on Sunday cast doubt on its likelihood, saying that Japan remains cautious and wants to see progress on disputed issues before committing to a leader's summit.

South Korea's presidential office, however, reaffirmed on Sunday that there is "no change" in plans for the two leaders to meet.

Experts said it is clear that President Yoon wants to recalibrate South Korea's relations with Japan, but it remains to be seen if he has any solution that would work.

Both countries have struggled to resolve the issue of compensation for Koreans subjected to forced labour by the Japanese during World War II.

Tensions escalated in 2019 due to Japan's curbs on the export of raw materials that South Korea needed to make memory chips, a boycott of Japanese brands in South Korea, and a near cancellation of a rare intelligence-sharing pact between the two countries.

"It's a good thing that the Yoon administration is trying to reconcile with Japan," said Dr Chung Eun-sook of the Sejong Institute think-tank. "But this requires more than just an administrative decision. There are many problems waiting to be resolved."

Yoon landed in London on Sunday. He is slated to attend Queen Elizabeth II's funeral on Monday with First Lady Kim Keon-hee.

The last stop in his itinerary is Ottawa, where he will meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday. They are expected to discuss ways to boost strategic partnership and economic cooperation, such as South Korean businesses investing in Canada's electric vehicle battery industry.

This trip will be a chance for President Yoon to show his foreign policy to the world, noted Dr Chung.

"He will talk about (South) Korea's role on the global stage and the importance of trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan, and stress that North Korea's denuclearisation must be realised," she said.

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