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(LEAD) Lee upbeat about suffrage for Japan's ethnic Koreans

All Headlines 15:22 January 14, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with comments on N. Korea, background; TRIMS)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, Jan. 14 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak said Thursday he was optimistic that Japan's parliament will soon pass a bill granting voting rights to ethnic Koreans there.

About 600,000 ethnic Koreans reside in Japan on a permanent basis, most of them the descendants of those forcibly brought to Japan during its colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45.

Struggling with discrimination in a mostly homogeneous society, Koreans in Japan have long sought the right to vote in local elections there.

The suffrage issue is highly political and emotional in Japan as conservatives are opposed to granting voting rights to foreign residents.

"Our request is that Japan should settle the issue of granting suffrage to ethnic Koreans in Japan within this year," Lee said in a meeting with a group of senior opinion leaders in South Korea, including several former prime ministers and parliamentary speakers. Only the president's opening remarks were opened to media.

"I believe it will be resolved smoothly," Lee said, adding Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Ichiro Ozawa, secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, promised to deal with the issue.

The Japanese government said earlier this week that it will submit the bill to the Diet on suffrage for foreign residents. Japan's parliament is to open a session next Monday. The move comes as Seoul and Tokyo seek to better their ties this year, the centenary of Japan's colonization of the peninsula.

With regard to North Korea, Lee said Seoul's policy toward Pyongyang is on a normal track.

The conservative president has been adamant about linking South Korea's aid and economic cooperation with the North to progress in its denuclearization.

He stressed that the two Koreas have a good chance to improve relations on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, saying his government will try to enhance North Korean people's living standards. The war ended in 1953 in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides technically at war.

Lee reaffirmed that his "Grand Bargain" proposal, aimed at striking a package deal with Pyongyang to end its nuclear program and break its diplomatic isolation, was made in prior consultations with the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan, all of which are members of the six-way talks.

North Korea and the U.S. discussed the issue during a trip by Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, to Pyongyang last month, added Lee.

"They will have good diplomatic channels," the president said without elaborating.

Meanwhile, the president, struggling to broaden public support for his revised Sejong City plan, listened to various opinions on the matter in the closed-door meeting Thursday, his spokesman Park Sun-kyoo said later.

The government announced a plan Monday that it will push for a project to build a business town in the envisioned town in the center of the country, an alternative to a plan by the former Roh Moo-hyun administration to relocate about a dozen ministries and other government offices there.


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