The leaders of Japan and South Korea agreed Wednesday to restore sound bilateral relations, with ties having deteriorated for around three years to the worst level in decades over wartime labor and territorial issues.
But the talks between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, were fully closed to media and described by Tokyo and Seoul as "informal," signaling that bilateral ties remain delicate and will not drastically improve soon.
During the in-person and sit-down meeting, the first between leaders of Japan and South Korea since 2019, Kishida and Yoon also shared grave concerns over the North Korean missile and nuclear threats, the two countries said.
Kishida and Yoon, who took office in May, pledged to enhance their cooperation to deal with issues related to North Korea, according to the Japanese and South Korean governments.
Both governments added that Kishida and Yoon agreed during their 30-minute talks to continue communicating and accelerating dialogue at the level of senior diplomats.
The two confirmed the importance of promoting bilateral and trilateral cooperation also involving the United States, since "Japan and South Korea are important neighbors for each other in the current strategic environment," according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
According to South Korea's presidential office, Yoon and Kishida "exchanged their views on matters of concern for each other," and agreed to cooperate in solidarity with the international community "to defend universal values shared by the two nations, such as liberal democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
After the talks, Yoon and Kishida separately left the building where they met, both without responding to any questions from reporters.
At the same building just before their meeting, Kishida hosted a leaders-level gathering of the Friends of the CTBT, a framework related to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in which Yoon did not participate, according to a Japanese government official.
Another Japanese official said that Kishida and Yoon held their talks in a "pull-aside" meeting, getting away from others for a private conversation, but it did not clarify which one of them asked for it.
On Thursday in Tokyo, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a regular press conference that the talks were not formal, adding South Korea shared the same view.
The talks came two days after Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and his South Korean counterpart Park Jin met in New York and agreed that the two countries will continue discussions toward an early resolution of the issue of compensation for wartime labor.
Yoon became South Korean leader with a pledge to take a future-oriented approach toward Japan after the bilateral relationship sank to its lowest point in years during the administration of Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae In.
South Korea is exploring how to deal with the issue of court orders to liquidate assets in the country seized from two Japanese companies that had been sued over alleged forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The companies have not complied with the compensation orders as Tokyo maintains that all claims stemming from its colonial rule, including compensation for Koreans forced to work, were settled "completely and finally" under a bilateral agreement signed in 1965.
Kishida and Yoon agreed to develop Japan-South Korea ties based on the "friendly cooperative relationship" between the countries since 1965, the ministry said.
Japan and South Korea are also at loggerheads over the Seoul-controlled, Tokyo-claimed islets of Takeshima in the Sea of Japan, which South Korea calls Dokdo.
Meanwhile, Yoon renewed his support for Japan in resolving the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, the ministry added.
Kishida and Yoon briefly chatted in June on the sidelines of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, which the two were attending as leaders of NATO partners.