Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, center, arrives at the Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas airport in Madrid on June 28. (Pool photo via AP)

MADRID--Prime Minister Fumio Kishida exchanged pleasantries with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol at a dinner for NATO leaders on June 28, their first in-person meeting and a step toward repairing their countries’ long troubled relations.

But they are not expected to hold talks while in Madrid for the NATO summit out of fear it could stir backlash from conservative Japanese voters.

According to an official with Yoon’s office, Kishida congratulated him for his party’s victory in local elections on June 1.

In reply, Yoon said he is hoping Kishida will also achieve good results in the July 10 Upper House elections, according to the official.

Yoon went on to add: “We feel that we should urgently resolve pending problems between South Korea and Japan and move toward future-oriented relations after Japan’s Upper House elections are over.”

Japan’s Foreign Ministry also confirmed that the two leaders had a brief exchange of greetings.

“I want the president to make an effort to help return the extremely strained bilateral relations to healthy ones,” Kishida was quoted by the ministry as saying to Yoon.

Kishida and Yoon were visiting the Spanish capital as Japan and South Korea were invited to the NATO summit as partner nations, together with Australia and New Zealand.

At Japan’s initiative, the four nations held their first meeting on the morning of June 29.

Japan, the United States and South Korea are expected to hold a three-way meeting during the NATO gathering, which is on until June 30.

Some signs have begun to emerge that the frosty relations between Japan and South Korea may finally be starting to thaw.

Two days after Yoon won the presidential election on March 9, Kishida called to congratulate him. During their conversation, they agreed to work together to repair their countries’ ties.

Kishida sent Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi as the prime minister’s special envoy to attend Yoon’s inauguration ceremony on May 10.

In his personal letter to the new president, Kishida underscored the need to promptly and fundamentally resolve the questions standing in the way of improved ties.

Around that time, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official floated the idea that a Japan-South Korea summit, the first since December 2019, could take place on the sidelines of the NATO summit.

The official said it would be easier to hold such talks by taking advantage of an international gathering.

But the climate surrounding the two nations turned tense again after a South Korean research vessel carried out a marine survey in late May in waters off the Takeshima islets, which are called Dokdo by South Korea and claimed by the two countries.

After the incident, criticism erupted within Kishida’s Liberal Democratic Party that Seoul was making light of Tokyo.

In addition to that, some insiders felt South Korea did not present concrete measures to resolve the contentious issue of compensation of wartime Korean laborers who worked for Japanese businesses. Japan has long maintained that the compensation issue was resolved once and for all when the two nations normalized their relations with bilateral pacts in 1965.

The Kishida administration decided to pass on a summit with Yoon in Madrid out of concern, with the Upper House election around the corner, that conservative Japanese voters might take the talks with the South Korean leader as a concession.

But Tokyo and Seoul are expected to switch into full gear to mend relations after the Upper House election.

(This article was written by Takuya Suzuki in Madrid and Yuichi Nobira in Tokyo.)