Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon kicked off a three-day visit to Japan in the hope that a meeting with his Japanese counterpart will pave the way for improvements in the two countries’ strained relations.
Before heading to Tokyo, Lee said he hoped South Korea and Japan would foster harmonious and mature relations despite difficulties, speaking with Japanese Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine, who saw Lee off at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.
“I don’t expect that this visit will resolve everything but it will become an opportunity to take a step forward,” Lee said. Lee described Japanese Emperor Naruhito as a “warm and friendly” person, recalling their encounter at the World Water Forum in Brazil in March last year.
On Tuesday, Lee attended Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony at the Imperial Palace, which was followed by a court banquet. About 2,000 guests took part, representing some 180 countries.
The Korean prime minister will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for about 10 minutes on Thursday and deliver a letter from President Moon Jae-in.
The contents of the letter were not disclosed, but it is speculated that Moon may be proposing a summit with Abe, expressing his willingness to improve ties and stressing the importance of cooperation.
Regarding Lee’s visit, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat said the Korean government was “expressing its commitment to developing future-oriented friendship and cooperation between the two countries, separately from conflict factors, including historical issues.” It added that the president had also sent a letter to the new Japanese emperor.
Korea-Japan relations have been turbulent this year. In July, Tokyo slapped economic restrictions against Seoul in protest against the Moon government for not intervening in last year’s Supreme Court ruling, which held that Japanese companies were obliged to compensate Korean victims of forced labor. Japan also revoked the country’s preferred trade partner status.
Tensions further escalated after the Korean government filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Japan’s tightened export controls. It also decided not to renew a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact that expires Nov. 23.
The number of Koreans visiting Japan dropped dramatically, by about 58 percent last month on-year. Many have also been boycotting Japanese brands for months.
The bitter row has spread to the military and economic sectors and is unlikely to be resolved in a short meeting between Lee and Abe.
At the center of the dispute is how to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula, as victims are taking legal steps toward seizure or liquidation of the companies’ assets in Korea.
Korea has proposed to Japan that companies from both countries create a joint fund to provide compensation.
“It doesn’t seem to be easy for the two sides to reach an agreement in a short period,” an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.