TOKYO (AP) — Japan announced Friday that its foreign minister will attend new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s inauguration ceremony next week as part of an effort to bring the countries’ strained relations back to normal.
Although the decision to send Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to Seoul signals Japan’s willingness to improve dialogue with South Korea, the absence of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the event underscores the still unresolved issues that have been a constant thorn in their ties.
Japan sent a vice prime minister to the 2013 inauguration, and serving prime ministers attended the two previous ceremonies. No foreign guests were invited in 2017 for outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s swearing-in.
Relations between the countries have plunged to their lowest level because of disputes over Japanese atrocities stemming from its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, including brutal treatment of wartime Korean laborers and sexual abuse of women at military brothels.
The disagreements over history have been complicated by court rulings, including the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court order for Japanese companies to pay compensation to wartime Korean laborers.
Japan maintains all compensation issues have been settled under a 1965 treaty normalizing their ties and criticized South Korea for breaching international law. The disputes have affected trade relations and security cooperation, causing concern amid threats from China and North Korea.
Hayashi will make a two-day trip to Seoul beginning Monday as Kishida’s special envoy, the Foreign Ministry said, stressing the importance to maintain communication with the new government in Seoul.
Hayashi is expected to hold talks with a number of top officials in Yoon’s government, including his counterpart, but Japanese officials said details were still being worked out. Hayashi is the first Japanese foreign minister to visit South Korea since Taro Kono in 2018.
Last week, a delegation from Yoon’s incoming administration held a series of meetings with top officials in Tokyo including Kishida, and they agreed to make efforts to smooth their ties.
Cooperation between Japan and South Korea, as well as with the United States, their mutual ally, is “indispensable for the stability in the region including their response to North Korea,” Hayashi told reporters before his trip was announced.
“Although Japan-South Korea relations are in extremely severe conditions, we cannot leave them alone,” Hayashi said. “In order to put Japan-South Korea ties back to healthy relations, I plan to closely communicate with President-elect Yoon and his new administration but by maintaining Japan’s consistent position.”