Top Seoul, Tokyo envoys hold talks after yearlong standoff
Published : May 5, 2021 - 18:26
Updated : May 5, 2021 - 21:04
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong (left) poses with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi after their meeting in London. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong on Wednesday met his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, for the first time since taking office in February, as tensions still run high between the neighbors amid an ongoing trade and political feud. 

Their meeting, which was held on the sidelines of the Group of Seven foreign ministers’ gathering in London, came after months of no contact between the top diplomats, due to the continued conflict and frayed ties between Seoul and Tokyo. 

The tense relations are rooted in Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and has morphed into an ongoing economic feud. The strained ties worsened further after Tokyo’s recent decision to discharge radioactive wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.

The two envoys agreed on the need for continued dialogue to resolve pending bilateral issues, but they remained apart on key historical matters, including the compensation for wartime forced laborers and sexual slavery victims, as well as Tokyo’s recent decision to discharge radioactive wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.

Chung expressed “deep concern” that Japanese government made the disposal decision without sufficient consultation with neighboring countries, and stressed the need for careful approach as it could potentially threaten the health and safety of people and the marine environment, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Touching on the historical issues, Motegi repeated Tokyo’s position on the issue of compensating “comfort women,” a euphemism for women who were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels before and during the World War II, and the victims of wartime forced labor.
During the talks, Motegi had demanded Seoul to “present at an early date a solution that would be acceptable to Japan” in regard to these historic issues, according to Kyodo News.

In response, Chung stressed the historic issues cannot be resolved without Japan’s “correct” historical perception, according to the ministry here.

Meanwhile, the two sides agreed on the need for close cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world, and to develop their bilateral relations in a “future-oriented way.”

The two ministers also agreed for continued cooperation for substantive progress in the efforts for complete denuclearization and establishment of lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. 

The last time the two countries held a foreign ministers’ meeting was February last year, when Chung’s predecessor Kang Kyung-wha met Motegi on the sidelines of a security forum in Munich, Germany.

The dialogue followed immediately after three-way talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where they underscored trilateral cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.

The envoys affirmed close coordination between the three countries to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the ministry claimed. 

The session marks the first time the top envoys of the three countries met in more than a year, and the first gathering since the launch of the Biden administration in January.

The diplomatic thaw comes as the Biden administration is pushing for tighter trilateral ties with the US’ two Northeast Asian allies in the face of an assertive China and a defiant North Korea.

It also arrives as Washington announced last week the completion of its monthslong policy review on North Korea.

The US will pursue a “calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy” with Pyongyang, with the goal of the North’s complete denuclearization, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

She also stressed that the US policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience, hinting a shift from Trump’s top-down “grand bargain” approach and Obama’s “strategic patience.”

During their meeting, Blinken shared the outcome of a review of the US policy toward Pyongyang, and the three agreed to closely communicate and cooperate on North Korea policy in future.

On Monday, Blinken held separate talks with both Chung and Motegi in the British capital.
After the meetings, Blinken called on Pyongyang to engage “diplomatically,” after it recently upped the ante by condemning both Washington and Seoul as well as firing missiles.

“I hope that North Korea will take the opportunity to engage diplomatically and to see if there are ways to move forward toward the objective of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Blinken said in a virtual joint press conference with his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, on Monday. “And so, we’ll look to see not only what North Korea says but what it actually does in the coming days and months.”

“But we have, I think, a clear -- a very clear policy that centers on diplomacy, and it is, I think, up to North Korea to decide whether it wants to engage or not on that basis,” he said.

By Ahn Sung-mi (