PM’s planned visit to Japan may serve as watershed for dialogue amid soured ties

SEOUL-- South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon's scheduled visit to Japan next week may serve as a watershed moment in helping mend soured ties between Seoul and Tokyo over Japan's wartime forced labor issue, analysts say.

But experts also remain cautious about excessive optimism over the outcome of Lee's potential meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the two countries have failed to narrow gaps between their stances over the issue.

Lee will visit Japan from Oct. 22-24 to attend the Japanese emperor's enthronement event amid the frosty relations between South Korea and Japan.

Details about Lee's itinerary have yet to be fixed, but there is a high possibility that he will hold talks with Abe.

If realized, it would be the first high-level meeting between the two nations since the Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms in October 2018 to compensate Korean victims of Tokyo's forced labor before and during World War II.

"The upcoming visit by Lee could serve as an occasion in finding ways to mend ties between the two nations. It will be the second-best option, given that President Moon Jae-in will not visit Japan next week," Lee Won-deog, a professor at Kookmin University, said.

The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae earlier said President Moon has no plan to attend a ceremony proclaiming the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito, citing Tokyo's stance on its trade retaliation against Seoul.

Moon and Abe visited New York last month to attend the United Nations General Assembly, but they did not hold a summit on the sidelines of the world body's gathering.

Since July, Japan has imposed export curbs against Seoul in apparent retaliation against the South Korean court's 2018 rulings over the forced labor issue.

Japan has reacted angrily to the Seoul court's decisions, claiming that all reparation issues linked to its 1910-45 colonial rule were settled in the 1965 state-to-state pact on normalizing diplomatic relations.

In August, Japan removed South Korea from the "whitelist" of countries subject to preferential trade status, on top of its export curbs.

On Aug. 22, the South decided not to extend the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, a military intelligence-sharing pact, citing Tokyo's refusal to accept Seoul's dialogue proposals.

Amid no imminent solution to the bilateral tensions, Lee is widely expected to work as "special envoy" in delivering President Moon's message to Abe.

Lee is regarded as a politician who seeks to promote friendly relations with Japan.

He has built up an extensive network with Japanese government officials and politicians, with experience working as a correspondent in Japan when he was a journalist and serving as vice chief of the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, a group of lawmakers of both nations that promotes better ties.

"The best outcome that can be expected from the Lee-Abe meeting, if realized, would be an agreement by the two nations to work toward an improvement of the bilateral ties and to make efforts to hold the Moon-Abe summit at an early date," Yang Kee-ho, a professor at Sungkonghoe University, said.

Lee is considering meeting with a wide range of Japanese opinion leaders, including scholars and journalists. An idea of meeting ordinary Japanese at pubs is also being floated.

"Lee's bid to meet with (Japanese) citizens is expected to serve as a chance to improve the image of Korea in Japan," a government official said.

The prime minister will likely focus on using his upcoming trip to set the stage for facilitating dialogue with Japan.

President Moon's message toward Japan may be adjusted until the last minute. Lee will meet with Moon at a regular meeting set for Oct. 21.

But experts also called for prudence about too much optimism about Lee's trip, given a sharp difference between the two nations over the contentious issue.

Potential stumbling blocks will be whether the South will let GSOMIA expire in November and whether to launch the legal process to liquidate Japanese firms' assets in Korea within this year.

GSOMIA was signed in 2016 as a key tool for strengthening trilateral security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo and is set to expire on Nov. 23.

Prime Minister Lee earlier said the government could reconsider the deal if Tokyo withdraws its export curbs against the South.

"If there is no progress by year's end, it may be difficult to anticipate an improvement in the Seoul-Tokyo relations," Professor Yang said.

"But given the big gap in the stances, it would be difficult to expect a bright outlook from Lee's visit," he noted.

Professor Lee proposed that the South consider withholding legal steps to liquidate Seoul-based assets of Japanese companies that have refused to comply with the Korean court order.

"By the end of this year, Moon could have a chance to hold a summit with Abe on the sidelines of the APEC meeting or a summit between the South, China and Japan," Lee added.

"It will be good for the prime minister's trip to become an occasion to set the stage for such Moon-Abe meetings."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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