In this file photo, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left), US President Joe Biden (center) and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (right) hold a trilateral summit on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2022
Credit: Office of the President of South Korea
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on Wednesday and reaffirmed their mutual interests in thawing the frozen bilateral relationship, South Korea’s presidential office said.
In the written briefing, the president’s office also said the two leaders “shared serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program involving the nuclear test and the new Nuclear Policy Act.” It said the two leaders held a 30-minute “informal talk” at the building where Kishida attended the high-level meeting of the Friends of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTMT).
The presidential office noted that the meeting came 34 months after the December 2019 summit between then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
But unlike the summit between Moon and Abe, Wednesday’s “informal meeting” happened without official announcements from the two sides. Normally, the two sides announce the schedule and agenda for the summit together, but the president’s office notified reporters two minutes after the meeting began. According to reporters covering Yoon’s visit to New York, the presidential office has consistently refused to share the schedule, saying “no comment.” In this context, only Japanese journalists who were on the scene covering Kishida’s attendance at the CTMT meeting could take pictures of Yoon entering the building to meet Kishida.
The extreme delay in notifications came after the South Korean presidential office prematurely announced a planned summit between Yoon and Kishida, which Japan repeatedly denied.
Seoul and Tokyo also used different language to describe the exchange. Seoul called the meeting between Yoon and Kishida an “informal chat,” but according to Japanese news media, Tokyo defined it as “a brief chat.” This is consistent with earlier reporting by Japanese media that Kishida did not want to hold a formal summit with Yoon as his demand for South Korea to resolve Supreme Court rulings on the use of forced labor in wartime Japanese companies has not been met.
Although Yoon and Kishida agreed to activate diplomatic channels for continuous communication, it remains questionable what options Seoul has to circumvent the court’s ruling. Since no party can override the decisions made by the Supreme Court under the sacred principle of separation of powers, the Yoon administration will face overwhelming criticism at home if it attempts an illegal move to overturn the ruling.
The presidential office had also announced that Yoon would meet US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. While no timetable for the talks was confirmed, Yoon had a 48-second impromptu chat with Biden at the Global Fund’s seventh replenishment event. According to reports, Biden unexpectedly invited Yoon to attend the event, thereby forcing the South Korean president to scrap his original schedule.
A “formal” summit with Biden was a key goal for Yoon because of South Korean concerns over Washington’s “inflation reduction law.” Since Yoon took office in May, Seoul and Washington have agreed to deepen economic ties, and many South Korean conglomerates announced significant investment plans in the United States this year. But with the IRA and its perks for American manufacturing, Washington suddenly pivoted toward protectionism — interpreted by many as Biden’s strategic decision to drum up public support for the November midterm elections.
This unacceptable development for South Korean companies also highlights Yoon’s diplomatic inexperience. The US Congress had publicly shared its plan to pass the bill, but Seoul was apparently asleep at the wheel. By the time Seoul’s labor-level officials reached out to Washington to complain about the bill, it was too late, as the IRA had already become law.
When the South Korean presidential office made its unilateral announcement about the summit between Yoon and Kishida on August 15, the South Korean presidential office also announced that Yoon would have a meeting with Biden. However, it appears the 48-second chat was the only chance Yoon got, as the White House has already released a written briefing about Biden’s meeting with Yoon on Wednesday.
These diplomatic missteps are taking a political toll for Yoon. According to the latest polls, Yoon’s approval rating is still around 30 percent, while more than 50 percent of South Koreans had a negative view of his trips to London and New York this week.
Unlike most leaders who attended the funeral of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Yoon failed to pay his respects to the Queen at Westminster Hall due to heavy traffic. A photo of French President Emmanuel Macron walking the streets with his wife to pay tribute to the queen, on the same day Yoon decided not to see the casket, drew widespread criticism from South Koreans who accused their president of laziness and negligence. Democratic Party lawmaker Kim Eui-kyum pointed out that Yoon was less than a kilometer away from Westminster Hall, meaning he could have walked to attend the main event of his London trip.
Yoon further soured the perception of his diplomacy by using a swear word (translated as “bastards”) to refer to the US Congress after his brief chat with Biden. The presidential office defended the language by saying it was a private conversation between Yoon and his staff, but it is expected to ignite even more criticism over Yoon’s apparent inability to function as president. Yoon has also been accused of calling Lee Jun-seok, the former head of the ruling People Power Party who was ousted by pro-Yoon lawmakers, a “bastard.”