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Korea, Japan talks unlikely at UN

Abe’s cabinet reshuffle could effect diplomacy with Moon gov’t
Sept 05,2019
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President Moon Jae-in attends the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28. Moon tried to arrange talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting, but Tokyo rebuffed such efforts. [YONHAP]
With just two weeks until the United Nations General Assembly opens its 74th session, chances of the leaders of South Korea and Japan holding a summit in New York amid soured bilateral relations are looking bleak.

Following Japan’s exclusion of South Korea from its white list of trusted trade partners and Seoul’s decision not to renew its bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo last month, the two countries are facing many diplomatic hurdles with no exit strategy.

World leaders will gather at the UN General Assembly’s 74th session, which kicks off on Sept. 17. The gathering was initially seen as an opportunity for President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet to discuss the various bilateral issues at hand, but with tensions ongoing, it seems unlikely to happen.

The Blue House and Ministry of Foreign Affairs say that “nothing has been confirmed” yet on whether Moon will meet with Abe on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The 74th General Debate, where world leaders will address the UN General Assembly, kicks off on Sept. 24. According to a schedule obtained by Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Aug. 14 from the UN Secretariat, Moon is slated to speak on Sept. 24, the first day, and Abe on Sept. 26.

Last year’s UN General Assembly General Debate, which took place between Sept. 23 and 27, took place right after Moon’s summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the Sept. 19 Pyongyang Declaration. Moon made an address at the 73rd General Assembly session and on its sidelines held bilateral talks with Abe and briefed Japan on the results of the inter-Korean summit. During this meeting the wartime forced labor issue was raised, and Moon spoke on the ongoing forced labor trials, explaining it would be necessary to respect the decision of the judiciary in compliance with the separation of the three branches of government.

The South Korean Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on Oct. 30 which ordered a Japanese company to compensate victims of forced labor during World War II, recognizing the illegality of Japan’s colonial rule and that individual rights to compensation have not expired.

Abe previously forecast that he also had no plans to meet with Moon on the sidelines of the General Assembly this year.

Japan’s Sankei Shimbun reported in late July, citing a high-ranking government official, that Abe will not hold talks with Moon at upcoming multilateral events including the UN General Assembly unless Seoul takes “constructive” steps over the forced labor issue.

Sankei Shimbun also said that Abe will not meet with Moon at other upcoming events including an Asean meeting in October and an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering in November.

Abe previously rebuffed Moon’s efforts to hold talks at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan in late June, days ahead of Tokyo unveiling the first of its unilateral export restrictions on Seoul. Thus, it will be awkward for South Korea to actively pursue arranging a bilateral summit in New York.

However, summit meetings can be arranged last minute, as was the case last year, when the South Korea-Japan talks were announced four days ahead of the UN General Assembly session.

Japan has been protesting against the South Korean top court’s rulings last October and November siding with the South Korean victims of forced labor during World War II, though Tokyo has yet to officially recognize its export restrictions as economic retaliation against historical issues stemming from its 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

Last week, Japan officially removed South Korea from its white list of countries receiving preferential treatment in exports - and Seoul also plans to drop Tokyo from its own white list by the end of this month.

South Korea decided it will not renew the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan, set to expire in November, seeing as Tokyo has said it cannot trust Seoul, claiming unsubstantiated national security concerns as reasons behind its trade restriction.

Seoul has urged Tokyo to resolve issues diplomatically and to immediately withdraw its economic retaliatory measures.

Abe is looking to reshuffle his cabinet as early as next week, which could affect Japan’s foreign affairs and security lineup. South Korea thus could be put in a position of having to build up those connections again.

Japan’s The Mainichi Shimbun reported Monday that Shotaro Yachi, Japan’s national security adviser and a key player in Abe’s diplomatic efforts, will likely step down when the cabinet is reshuffled, citing government sources. It reported that Shigeru Kitamura, a top intelligence officer and former National Police Agency bureaucrat, is considered as a candidate to replace Yachi, who has served as the first head of the secretariat for Japan’s National Security Council since 2014.

Yachi was known to have coordinated quite closely with Chung Eui-yong, the Blue House national security adviser in the early stages of the Moon administration.

It is also unclear whether Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono will be replaced. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has built up a working relationship with him, however, it is reported that Kono also has decreased influence within the Japanese government because of the court rulings on the forced labor issue.

A major shake-up of Japan’s foreign affairs and security lineup could be a setback for South Korea’s attempts to work relations out diplomatically, as it takes time for officials to build trust and working relations.

In response to speculations over a shake-up in Japan’s diplomatic lineup, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday, “we will try our best so that there is no negative impact” on diplomatic efforts with Tokyo, adding Seoul’s position that it is open to dialogue with Japan “will not change.”

Thailand will be hosting an Asean Plus Three leaders’ summit, which includes South Korea, Japan and China, next month, and Japan also will be holding an enthronement ceremony on Oct. 22 for new Japanese Emperor Naruhito as well as other opportunities for the leaders to meet.

However, Moon is on a trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Laos this week, which could mean he may not make a trip to Southeast Asia next month for the Asean summit. There has been some speculation that Moon may send Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon to the enthronement ceremony.

BY LEE YU-JUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]