(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 11-12)
SEOUL/TOKYO, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) -- Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said Tuesday that his trip to Japan will help South Korea and its neighbor take a step forward in mending their frayed ties over Tokyo's wartime forced labor.
Earlier in the day, Lee arrived in Tokyo for a three-day trip to attend the Japanese emperor's enthronement ceremony and meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday.
"I don't think a single trip will resolve everything, but I believe this visit will work as a step forward in the bilateral ties," Lee was quoted by government officials as telling Nagamine Yasumasa, Japan's top envoy to South Korea, at Seoul Air Base, just south of Seoul, before departure.
As his first official schedule, Lee attended a ceremony by Emperor Naruhito to formally proclaim his enthronement. South Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo also participated in it.
Lee's attendance reflects the government delivering a congratulatory message over its neighbor's national event, according to his office.
"Separately from tensions over the history issue, the government is expressing its willingness to develop the Seoul-Tokyo ties in a future-oriented manner," it added.
Lee will take part in a court banquet due in the evening, where he may have a brief encounter with Naruhito.
South Korea-Japan relations have been strained since Japan protested the South Korean top court's 2018 orders for Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of Tokyo's forced labor during its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In July, Japan imposed export curbs against its neighbor in apparent retaliation for the Korean court's rulings. In August, it removed the South from its list of countries subject to preferential trade status.
Japan has reacted angrily to the Seoul court's decisions, claiming that all reparation issues linked to its 1910-45 colonial rule were settled in the 1965 state-to-state pact on normalizing diplomatic relations.
Regarding the ongoing row, an official at Seoul's foreign ministry said that it does not appear easy for the two countries to find a solution in a short period of time.
The official refused to comment on if the two countries are discussing any revision to Seoul's earlier proposal that South Korean and Japanese firms jointly form a fund to compensate victims of forced labor.
Lee's meeting with Abe would be the first high-level talks between the two nations since late last year.
Experts and government officials hope that Lee's trip will pave the way for the two nations to mend their soured relations and set the stage for President Moon Jae-in and Abe to hold a summit this year.
"I will discuss ways to facilitate dialogue between Seoul and Tokyo during meetings with Abe and political and economic leaders," Lee said on social media before his departure for Japan.
Lee is expected to voice the government's commitment to improving ties with Japan during the meeting with Abe, officials said.
His office confirmed Lee will deliver President Moon's letter to the Japanese Prime Minister on Thursday, when the two are expected to meet for around 10 minutes or longer.
An official at Lee's office also said President Moon has sent a personal letter to Naruhito through a diplomatic channel. The details of the letter were not disclosed.
During the trip, Lee plans to meet a wide range of politicians and business leaders, as well as young Japanese people.
Lee is scheduled on Wednesday to meet Natsuo Yamaguchi, chief of the Komeito party, junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party; and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, president of the organizing committee for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
To pay tribute, he will visit the monument honoring Lee Soo-hyun on Tuesday, a Korean hero who died trying to rescue a drunk Japanese man who had fallen onto the subway tracks in Tokyo in 2001. The late Lee is regarded as a symbol of friendly ties between the two nations.
A town-hall meeting is scheduled for Wednesday with around 20 Japanese college students to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries.
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