Photo/Illutration This seating arrangement was hastily made for the Sept. 21 meeting in New York between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol. (Keishi Nishimura)

NEW YORK--Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol showed differing attitudes and interest in the first meeting between the two leaders here on Sept. 21 that failed to break new ground. 

Kishida had even considered not meeting with Yoon after South Korea made a unilateral announcement that one would be held.

Then, desiring to show that a meeting was actually held, the South Korean president talked at length to prolong the session even as Kishida showed little enthusiasm for what was being discussed.

Problems between the two sides first emerged on Sept. 15 when South Korea announced that an agreement had been reached on holding a meeting between Kishida and Yoon on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York.

According to those close to the prime minister, he was incensed by that report and told associates, “They should not say something about what has not been decided. I feel like not meeting at all.”

A Kishida associate said, “The prime minister was angry because he actually said he would not meet” with Yoon.

A high-ranking official in the prime minister’s office said, “At a time when gradual steps have to be accumulated to restore trust, we could not understand what their intent was.”

According to sources, the South Korean side repeatedly asked for a meeting and left the time and location up to Tokyo. In the end, a room in the building where the Japanese delegation to the United Nations is headquartered was chosen for the meeting.

According to those who sat in on the Kishida-Yoon meeting, the prime minister showed little interest in the sit-down session. He barely spoke so it was up to Yoon to continue speaking to prolong the meeting so that it would not end in a matter of minutes.

The bilateral issue of greatest concern to Japan is the lawsuits against Japanese companies filed by wartime Korean laborers. But no progress was made in resolving the issue during the 30-minute session on Sept. 21.

One Japanese official who sat in on the meeting said, “Because they said they wanted a meeting even with little prospect of a specific result, we agreed to a meeting that we did not have to attend. South Korea now owes Japan so they will have to produce something for the next meeting.”

Japan agreed to the meeting because officials felt Seoul was serious about improving relations.

After meeting with Yoon, Kishida told associates, “They showed that they are willing to resolve the issues. We will have to see what they can come up with in the future.”