President Lee Myung Bak will seek a “mature” relationship with Japan that prioritizes economic ties and diplomatic cooperation, rather than focus on emotional issues linked to the past Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean journalists told the Feb. 22 symposium.

But they also pointed out that a “future-oriented” relationship is something that has been similarly advocated by the past three South Korean presidents but has proven elusive as bilateral ties were frequently hit by history-related disputes.

On the day of his inauguration, President Lee held talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, and agreed to resume stalled reciprocal visits and restart stalled talks for a free-trade agreement in a bid to create future-oriented ties.

Shin Hyo Seop, an editorial writer of The Chosun Ilbo daily, said Lee apparently considers Fukuda a pragmatist like himself. Fukuda has said he would not visit Yasukuni Shrine — a frequent source of dispute between Japan and its Asian neighbors, he noted.

Lee’s willingness to rebuild ties with Japan — strained under former President Roh Moo Hyun — is also reflected in his appointment of Yu Myung Hwan, the ambassador to Japan, as the new foreign affairs and trade minister, Shin said.

Shin noted that the past five years under Roh were a period when frictions over history issues, like the “comfort women” or the territorial row over a group of islets in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima in Japan and called Dokdo in South Korea, came more than ever to the forefront of bilateral relations.

In his March 1, 2005, speech to mark the anniversary of a 1919 bloody uprising against Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Roh urged Japan to “make the truth of the past known” about Korean forced laborers and women forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II, and “offer sincere apologies and if necessary pay compensation.”

Such a remark led Japan to question Roh’s credibility, given that he had earlier told Tokyo that he would not stick to history issues but pursue future-oriented ties, Shin said.

Shin said that when it comes to the sensitive Takeshima-Dokdo issue — which triggered massive anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2005 — even Lee will not budge from South Korea’s basic position that the islets are a part of its territory despite Japan’s claim.

What Lee would do, however, is to make utmost efforts — either through official or unofficial channels — to minimize diplomatic fallout from the issue, Shin said. Such efforts were virtually nonexistent under the Roh administration, he added.

Kim Du Woo of The JoongAng Ilbo pointed out that Lee is not the first South Korean president to advocate a “future-oriented” relationship with Japan.

It’s a message that had also been repeated by his three predecessors — Roh, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, he said. The two countries should think why the “future-oriented” bilateral ties remain an elusive goal after three successive administrations, he added.

Kim noted that there is a broad consensus among South Korean people today to look to the future in their relations with Japan, because 85 percent to 90 percent of the country’s population do not have firsthand experience of the Japanese colonial rule.

But at the same time, Japan should realize that there is also an underlying sentiment among the South Korean public of considering themselves as “victims” of Japan’s past rule, Kim said, adding that such sentiments may come to the surface when Japanese political leaders make remarks that “stimulate” them.

Rhee Hak Young, editor of the consumer and marketing desk at The Korea Economic Daily, said the soured political relations between South Korea and Japan — not just economic considerations — were behind the suspension of the bilateral FTA talks in recent years.

While Lee and Fukuda have agreed that the free-trade talks should be restarted, caution lingers within the South Korean business community toward a deal with Japan, given that many Korean firms lag behind their Japanese rivals in technological competitiveness, Rhee noted.

Still, Rhee said that if Tokyo and Seoul are going to restart the talks, they should aim at a substantial agreement that would cover such issues as agriculture and government procurement, and truly establish — as Tokyo calls it — an economic partnership between the two countries.