Seoul, Tokyo take difficult 1st step to mend ties

Yoon blamed for swearing, lack of results, PR failure

By Nam Hyun-woo



The Korea Times Co.


When Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae-hyo said last week that President Yoon Suk-yeol’s summit with U.S. President Joe Biden would be brief — 30 minutes or so — many thought that it might be too short to talk about the urgent issues between the two countries. But the meeting in New York City turned out to be even shorter — far shorter — than he hoped it would be. At a fundraising event hosted by Biden, Yoon had a standing conversation with him for less than a minute — 48 seconds, precisely. According to Yoon’s office and the White House, Wednesday (local time), Yoon asked Biden to help resolve South Korean companies’ concerns over the Inflation Reduction Act and they reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering the bilateral alliance against North Korea during the conversation. The act, passed last month, gives a tax credit to buyers of electric vehicles (EVs) from next January if a minimum of 40 percent of the critical minerals in their batteries are mined or processed in the U.S. or countries that signed free trade agreements in the U.S., or recycled in North America. At least 50 percent of the battery components must also be manufactured or assembled in North America. The law is causing significant concern for Korean automakers. The news immediately drew criticism from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which called the meeting the latest episode of “diplomatic disaster” committed by Yoon. “I don’t want to believe that their 48-second standing conversation could actually be called a summit,” Rep. Park Hong-keun, the DPK’s floor leader, said during a meeting at the National Assembly in Seoul. “If that really was all, I’m truly worried that he has failed to resolve any important economic issues, such as the discriminatory electric vehicle tax incentives and the pressure on Korea’s semiconductor and bio industries.” Speaking of video footage of the president using swear words to refer apparently to the U.S. Congress, Park called it a “slanderous diplomatic accident that seriously tarnished national dignity.” It is unclear what specifically Yoon was talking about when he said, “How embarrassing would it be for Biden, if those ‘sekkideul’ (which can be translated as “those bastards”) in the Congress did not approve it?” The same day, Yoon also met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, where they expressed the need to improve relations between the two countries despite many historical issues impeding progress. Despite it being the first one-onone talks between the leaders of the two countries since December 2019, the meeting became a target of DPK criticism before it was even held, after the Japanese side openly expressed displeasure over Yoon’s office having leaked to the press that the summit was going to occur, although it was supposed to remain confidential until the last minute. “Both the process and the results were humiliating,” Park said. “It was a meeting without a set agenda … No progress was made on historical issues such as forced labor.” Yoon’s seven-day trip to Britain, the U.S. and Canada was bumpy from the beginning. Given that he failed properly to pay his respects to British Queen Elizabeth II upon his arrival there, unlike many other world leaders who did, the DPK has criticized him as an incompetent leader who knows nothing about diplomacy or politics. South Korea and Japan took a difficult first step toward improving their soured relations, as President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had a bilateral meeting in New York, Wednesday (local time) and agreed on the need to mend ties by resolving pending issues. Also, Yoon had a brief encounter with U.S. President Joe Biden and delivered Seoul’s concerns over possible damage to South Korean companies stemming from the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), with Biden responding that the two sides should continue their consultations. According to the presidential office, Yoon had a 30-minute meeting with Kishida at a conference building near the U.N. headquarters, during which they shared each other’s views on pending issues. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Seoul and Tokyo since December 2019. The two countries’ relations have sunk to a low point as Japan tightened its export controls on key industrial materials heading to Seoul in retaliation against a South Korean Supreme Court ruling ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of wartime forced labor. The Supreme Court has ordered the liquidation of assets here owned by two Japanese companies to compensate the forced labor victims, as the businesses have not complied with the compensation orders. “The two leaders agreed on the need to improve bilateral relations by resolving pending issues, and agreed to instruct their diplomats to accelerate talks to that end, while also continuing discussions between themselves,” Lee Jae-myoung, a deputy presidential spokesperson, said in a written briefing. Yoon and Kishida also agreed to cooperate in building coalitions with the international community to protect democracy, human rights and other common values. They also shared serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, including the North’s new law authorizing the use of nuclear weapons in preemptive strikes for self-protection, as well as the possibility of conducting a seventh nuclear test. Yoon and Kishida agreed to cooperate closely with the international community in responding to the threat, the deputy spokesperson said. “It was the first step toward a tangible outcome,” an official at the presidential office said. “The meeting bears significance as the two leaders met and made a first step toward resolutions despite much friction between the two countries.” The meeting came after the two sides made different announcements on whether the summit will take place or not. Seoul had announced on Sept. 15 that Yoon would meet Kishida during their stay in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, but Tokyo had refrained from confirming, casting uncertainty over their meeting. The meeting was also held at the building which was the venue for a Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty event Kishida was attending, meaning that Yoon visited Kishida for the summit. Against this backdrop, Yoon is facing mounting criticism that the meeting failed to achieve tangible outcomes. Main opposition Democratic Party of Korea floor leader Park Hong-keun said that Yoon ended the summit “empty-handed” and that there was “no progress on the forced labor issue and other history-related matters.” Also on Wednesday, Yoon talked briefly with Biden at the Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment Conference and a reception hosted by the U.S. president. Seoul’s presidential office had publicized that Yoon would have a summit with Biden on the occasion of his visit to New York, but the meeting did not materialize due to changes in the U.S. leader’s schedule. Instead, Yoon had a conversation with Biden on the sidelines of the event. Video footage showed that the two leaders talked for 48 seconds during the Global Fund event. The presidential office said in a press release that Yoon voiced Seoul’s concerns over the IRA, and asked for close cooperation between the two countries to address those fears when the U.S. government puts the IRA into practice. Biden responded that he is well aware of South Korea’s concerns and the two countries should continue to hold consultations, the press release added.