|Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, right, and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki participate in a party meeting of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea at the National Assembly, in this Aug. 4 file photo. Korea Times file|
By Park Ji-won
All eyes will be on Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon during his visit to Japan this week, waiting to see whether he can create a breakthrough in the worsening relations with the neighboring country over historic and economic issues.
He is planning to visit Japan from Tuesday to Thursday to celebrate Japanese Emperor Naruhito's coronation on Tuesday as a representative of Korea. He will be officially attending the coronation ceremony at the Imperial Palace and banquets at the Hotel New Otani hosted by Naruhito and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, along with reportedly some 2,000 dignitaries and state heads from more than 170 countries, including U.S. Transport Secretary Elaine Chao and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.
One of the key events for Lee, however, will be the one-on-one meeting with Prime Minister Abe which is planned to be held on Thursday morning, at which Lee is planning to deliver President Moon Jae-in's personal message.
It is unknown what message Moon will send, although it is largely expected that Lee will make a proposal to Abe on behalf of the President to tackle historical issues. Lee told Japanese media last week that Moon thinks the forced labor issue should not become a hurdle in building future-oriented relations between the two countries. Stressing that Moon is worried about the worsening relations, Lee also said Moon is looking for proposals acceptable to the surviving victims of forced labor and the Korean people. The President earlier made a proposal to Abe in June of compensating victims by getting frims of the two countries to donate to a fund, but the prime minister immediately rejected it.
Expectations are rising on Lee's visit as it could serve as a stepping stone to holding a summit between Moon and Abe in the near future, such as at the ASEAN Plus Three summit to be held in Singapore from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Chile from Nov. 16 to 17. Still, experts are cautious about a Moon-Abe summit as Japan's stance remains unchanged.
Extensive networking planned
Apart from the ceremonial events, he will be meeting with high-ranking Japanese officials Wednesday including lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan such as Fukushiro Nukaga and Takeo Kawamura, head and senior member of the Japan-South Korea parliamentarian's union, as well as opposition lawmakers such as Natsuo Yamaguchi, chief representative of Komeito, a coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party. They are largely expected to discuss measures to improve the strained relations between the neighboring countries.
Lee will also meet with former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, president of the Organizing Committee for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, on the same day.
To tackle the trade dispute with Japan, Lee will also be meeting Japanese businessmen during a luncheon on Thursday after meeting with Abe.
Lee will be having a meeting with about 10 key business figures with close relations to Korean industry including Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of Keidanren, Japan's biggest business lobby group, and Mikio Sasaki, chairman of the Japan-Korea Economic Association and a special adviser to Mitsubishi Corporation.
After Korea's top court in October 2018 ordered Japanese firms to compensate the surviving South Korean victims of forced labor under Japanese colonial rule, Japan has imposed export restrictions against Seoul in an apparent retaliatory move.
Lee had "behind-the-scenes meetings" with businessmen and political figures before his departure for Tokyo, to have "better leverage" in an apparent move to deal with the forced labor issue.
He met with Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin to explore ways to improve bilateral relations. Shin, as a chairman running businesses both in South Korea and Japan, has extensive networks in Japan including a relationship with Abe. Shin and Lee also met in the U.S. state of Louisiana in May, and reportedly discussed Seoul-Tokyo relations back then.
Korea's ruling Democratic Party of Korea has been criticizing the Japanese government for its alleged plans to release radioactive "contaminated" water into the ocean and provide food using ingredients from Fukushima Prefecture for athletes and other international guests at the Olympics.