In media interviews published Friday, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said he intends to deliver a personal letter from President Moon Jae-in to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next week in Tokyo, hoping to improve a bilateral relationship strained by historical issues and trade disputes in recent months.
He made the remarks in separate interviews with Kyodo News and the daily Asahi Shimbun.
Lee is set to attend the enthronement ceremony for Emperor Naruhito on Tuesday and is expected to meet with Abe on Thursday.
“I will listen to Abe’s words sincerely, and in turn, do my best to explain the thoughts of Moon and myself,” Lee was quoted as saying by Kyodo News on Thursday in Seoul.
Any meeting, however, looked unlikely to lead to an immediate diplomatic breakthrough as of Friday. Commenting on Lee’s remarks, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said the planned Abe-Lee meeting will likely to be limited to a very short courtesy call as dozens of other world leaders attending the enthronement ceremony also plan to meet Abe on the sidelines of the event.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Tokyo has not yet been officially notified by Seoul about whether Lee will be carrying a letter from Moon or not.
If Seoul is seriously thinking about “eliminating the violation of international law” regarding the wartime labor issue, it would help improve the bilateral relationship, the official added.
Tokyo and Seoul have been locked in a war of words over the wartime labor issue and there have been no signs of concessions by either side so far.
Last year, South Korean courts ordered several Japanese firms to pay compensation to South Korean laborers who were forced to work in Japan during World War II.
The Japanese government has requested that Seoul take measures to avoid damaging the firms, pointing out the two countries agreed to settle all compensation issues regarding wartime labor with the 1965 economic cooperation pact.
Tokyo says the pact obliges the South Korean government to pay any compensation for wartime laborers by using funds already provided by Japan under the pact.
Seoul, however, has yet to take any action, saying the independence of its judiciary must be observed.
Japan later tightened controls on dozens of items exported to South Korea, including key materials needed by South Korean makers of semiconductors, further straining bilateral ties.
In the Kyodo interview, Lee claimed the two countries are still continuing “unofficial dialogue” to explore ways to settle the wartime labor issue.
But he didn’t elaborate any further, saying that “publicizing processes still in progress” won’t help solve the problem.
“If the leaders of the two sides promote (unofficial dialogue), we can quicken its speed,” Lee also was quoted as saying.
During an Upper House budget committee session Wednesday, Abe said that South Korea is “an important neighboring country” and that he does not intend to “shut down dialogue.”
However, Abe also emphasized that the 1965 pact is “the foundation” of the postwar bilateral relationship and that Seoul nonetheless has “left unattended the situation violating” the agreement.
“We are requesting (Seoul) to observe the promise between the two countries first, and thereby create an opportunity to normalize the Japan-South Korea relationship,” Abe said.
During a regular news conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe’s stance has remained unchanged.
“We are strongly requesting South Korea take wise reactions,” he said.