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Japan and South Korea Leaders Meet One-on-One for First Time Since 2019

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Japan and South Korea Leaders Meet One-on-One for First Time Since 2019

The leaders of Japan and South Korea held their first bilateral meeting in nearly three years, another step toward recovery for frayed ties between two of the U.S.’s key Asian allies.

Japanese Prime Minister

Fumio Kishida

met with South Korean President

Yoon Suk-yeol

for roughly 30 minutes Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Both leaders attended and gave U.N. floor speeches.

Neither side appeared to seriously broach substantive discussion over resolving long-running disagreements over historical grievances or trade that have paralyzed the two countries’ relations.

The leaders agreed to advance ties and work together to counter North Korea’s rising weapons threat—including the prospect of a seventh nuclear test by the Kim Jong Un regime. Mr. Kishida said at a news conference Thursday that the two sides were having constructive talks over a dispute about potential compensation for Korean forced laborers in World War II.

Mr. Yoon hasn’t announced plans to travel to Tokyo next week for the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister

Shinzo Abe.

South Korea’s prime minister is scheduled to attend.

The heads of Japan and South Korea hadn’t met one-on-one since December 20src9 during a trilateral summit with China. At June’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Madrid, Messrs. Kishida and Yoon had gathered with President Biden for the first three-way exchange in nearly five years.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.

Photo:

Jason DeCrow/Bioreports

The meeting represents a diplomatic achievement for both Mr. Yoon and Mr. Kishida, though much more work needs to be done to repair bilateral ties, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Seoul needs to untie the legal and domestic political knots over wartime compensation while Tokyo should show greater efforts for historical reconciliation and cooperation on trade,” Prof. Easley said.

Friction between South Korea and Japan poses a headache for the U.S., which prefers a unified front with its allies to counter the growing power and influence of China in Asia, as well as to deter North Korea.

Domestic politics in both Japan and South Korea make any swift resolution difficult, with considerable blocs in both countries unwilling to compromise on legacy issues. Both conservative leaders also face falling approval ratings back home.

Mr. Yoon, who took office in May, has seen his approval ratings slide to 34%, according to a Realmeter poll released this week, down roughly src8 percentage points from their peak level in June.

A poll by the Nikkei newspaper released Monday found support for Mr. Kishida’s cabinet had fallen to 43% from 57% in August. That represented the first time since he took office in October 202src that the proportion of those not supporting his cabinet—49%—was higher than those backing the Kishida administration. The rest were undecided.

The ascensions of Mr. Kishida and Mr. Yoon had given some optimism that the two countries’ relations could get back on track. The two countries have recently engaged in more diplomatic engagement and participated in more combined military drills with the U.S.

Last month, the U.S., South Korea and Japan conducted missile-tracking and defense exercises in the waters off Hawaii, the first such combined training since 20src7.

Write to Timothy W. Martin at timothy.martin@wsj.com and Peter Landers at peter.landers@wsj.com

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