FM meets new top Japanese envoy amid soured ties

SEOUL-- Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha met with new Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Koji Tomita on Tuesday as South Korea and Japan seek to mend ties badly frayed over wartime history and trade.

Tomita's courtesy call on Kang marked the first time the two have met since the veteran Japanese diplomat, known for his past service in Korea, arrived in Seoul early last month to replace predecessor Yasumasa Nagamine.

"I think your visit is meaningful as you are the first foreign guest (to the ministry) this year," Kang said after exchanging New Year's greetings with the Japanese envoy.

Tomita responded, "It is an honor that you greeted me as the first foreign guest in 2020."

Upon arriving in Seoul on Dec. 3, Tomita pledged to play a "bridge-building" role to help address the discord between the two countries.

Seoul-Tokyo relations dipped to the lowest point in years last year after Tokyo tightened export controls on key industrial materials vital to South Korean tech firms and removed Seoul from its list of favored trading partners.

Seoul interpreted those measures as retaliation for South Korean Supreme Court's rulings in late 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul hit back by declaring an end to a bilateral military information-sharing pact with Tokyo. But Seoul's last-minute decision to suspend the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) capped off months of heightening tensions.

Despite the gap in the two sides' stances, President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held summit talks in China last month where they agreed to make efforts to resolve the pending issues through dialogue. The summit in China was their first one-on-one meeting in more than a year.

In his New Year's address earlier in the day, Moon called Japan the country's closest neighbor and proposed developing bilateral ties in a future-oriented manner, while repeating his call for Tokyo to withdraw the export restrictions.

Before the meeting with Tomita, Kang met nine senior members of the Korean Residents Union in Japan, better known as Mindan.

At the meeting, Kang pledged to continue efforts to improve relations between Seoul and Tokyo while expressing sadness over their difficulties stemming from historical feuds between the two countries.

The union members voiced hope for the restoration of exchanges among citizens of the two countries, citing a recent sharp drop in the number of South Korean tourists to Japan.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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