|President Moon Jae-in, left, salutes the national flag with Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon during a Cabinet meeting at Cheong Wa Dae on Sept. 8. Yonhap|
PM Lee to meet Abe with Moon's messages
By Kim Yoo-chul
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon will represent South Korea at the enthronement ceremony of Japanese emperor Naruhito this month, the Prime Minister's office confirmed Sunday.
The South Korean government had been contemplating sending Lee or a top-level presidential aide to the Oct. 22 ceremony, in which the new emperor proclaims his enthronement in front of representatives from Japan and about 200 other countries.
"The Prime Minister's Office confirmed that Prime Minister Lee will attend Japanese emperor Naruhito's enthronement ceremony on behalf of President Moon Jae-in," the office said, adding that the PM's trip was planned for Oct. 22 to 24.
A senior presidential aide said Cheong Wa Dae was hoping Lee's visit to Tokyo would provide a "new and fresh impetus" in improving Seoul-Tokyo relations.
As Japan's decision to delist South Korea from its list of most preferred trading partner, an aide said "the government has been doing everything we can for better bilateral relations."
The office said Lee would attend a dinner banquet on Oct. 23, to be hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and hold a series of meetings with Japanese politicians and businesspeople.
Cheong Wa Dae declined to comment whether Lee would convey President Moon's "unofficial" messages as a "de facto special envoy" to repair the worsening bilateral ties since Japan imposed export controls leading to a deepening trade and diplomatic row.
But Cheong Wa Dae sources and ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) officials told The Korea Times that Lee's attendance would be a "necessary step" toward ending bilateral spats. President Moon and Abe will also be participating at this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) meeting in Chile on Nov. 16.
"No major breakthroughs and announcements will come after Lee's visit to Japan. Lee will report details of his meetings with senior Japanese politicians and businesspeople to President Moon," said a DPK lawmaker familiar with the matter. "Based on new findings and conditions that are relevant before implementing an exit strategy, Seoul and Tokyo would start working-levels talks to set up a Moon-Abe summit during the upcoming APEC."
If Lee meets Abe in Tokyo, it would mark the highest-level dialogue since tension rose last year over Japan's wartime use of Koreans for forced labor.
Tokyo said Seoul was aiming to rewrite history in the wake of the South Korean Supreme Court's ruling ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to surviving South Korean plaintiffs over wartime forced labor, claiming the issue was settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized ties. South Korea argued that the settlement treaty did not cover individual claims.
Since then, relations between Washington's top two Asian allies have been deteriorating.
Tokyo implemented export curbs toward Seoul in July. In retaliation, Seoul notified Tokyo it would not renew a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact, known as GSOMIA.
Seoul's ending of GSOMIA was putting trilateral military cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo in jeopardy with U.S. President Donald Trump and senior U.S. government officials repeatedly stressing the need for the alliance to be restored quickly.
"What conditions and methods are needed to end the diplomatic row will be the key agenda during Lee's meetings with Japanese politicians and businesspeople," the DPM lawmaker said.
South Korea had earlier proposed establishing a joint compensation fund with the Japanese government and private companies to divide compensation among surviving victims.
South Korea and Japan concluded the first round of talks recently through the World Trade Organization (WTO) over trade issues, agreeing to further talks. The trade ministry in Seoul said it would not comment on whether the ministry would drop all the complaints it filed to the organization.
The financial implications of the spat are already becoming evident. Worsening tensions, coupled with a wider financial slowdown, resulted in South Korean exports to Japan in August falling 6.2 percent from the previous year.
Over the same time, sales of Japanese vehicles in South Korea plummeted 57 percent, mainly due to consumer boycotts. The number of Korean tourists to Japan also fell by half.