Japan cautiously welcomes South Korean president-elect

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his government welcomed the victory of South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol on Thursday

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his government welcomed the victory of South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol on Thursday as Japanese officials and experts expressed sense of relief and hope for an improvement of the badly strained ties between the neighbors.

Yoon, a conservative former top prosecutor and foreign policy neophyte, was elected South Korea’s president to replace outgoing Moon Jae-in, during whose leadership bilateral relations have sunk to their lowest levels in years over wartime history disputes.

“Japan-South Korea relations are in a very severe conditions, but we cannot leave this as is,” Kishida told reporters Thursday.

“Healthy ties between Japan and South Korea are indispensable for the peace, stability and prosperity of the world,” especially as the international community faces the difficulty such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he said. “Cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea is also important.”

Kishida, however, said Japan will stick to its principle that all compensation issues have been settled by the 1965 bilateral treaty, which he said has been the basis of the friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries. He said it is crucial for Seoul to “keep promises between the nations.”

“I believe it is important to communicate with the new president and his new administration in order to restore healthy relations (between the two sides) based on Japan's consistent position,” Kishida said. “I hope to hold dialogues with the new government as I watch its actions.”

With South Korea returns to a conservative leader who is expected to seek a stronger alliance with the United States and tougher stance on North Korea, Japanese officials and experts have expressed relief, although the leadership change may not serve a quick fix.

Rui Matsukawa, a diplomat-turned-ruling lawmaker, welcomed Yoon's victory and South Korea's return to conservative leadership in her tweet, noting his willingness to improve bilateral relations. “I expect his realistic diplomacy that looks to the future rather than the past.”

But Masahisa Sato, senior lawmaker in charge of the governing party's Foreign Affairs Division, cautioned against high expectations.

“We should abandon a fantasy that a conservative's victory can mend Japan-South Korean ties that have suffered multiple bone fractures," he said. Conservative leadership is “better than the opposition but there is no change to the fact that the ball remains in the South Korean court."

Although they are both military allies of the U.S. and share common concerns over North Korea and China, ties between Tokyo and Seoul have suffered over the legacy of Japan’s World War II atrocities.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul deteriorated after South Korean court rulings ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to Korean laborers over their abuses during World War II. Another sticking point is Korean “comfort women” who were sexually abused by Japan’s wartime military occupation.

Tokyo’s UNESCO World Heritage nomination of Sado silver and gold mines in northern Japan has compounded disagreements over compensation for wartime Korean laborers. Seoul opposes Japan’s nomination, saying many Koreans brought to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula were put to forced labor at the mine.

Japan insists that all compensation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty normalizing relations with Seoul and that South Korean court orders to Japanese companies to pay compensation violate international law.

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