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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 16)

All News 07:13 September 16, 2020

Japan's leadership change
Seoul, Tokyo should strive to mend ties

Japan will have a new leader Wednesday after Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga won a landslide victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership election Monday. Suga is certain to be elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote.

His imminent election follows the exit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is stepping down due to ill health. Yet the leadership change is unlikely to bring about any significant shifts because Suga, Abe's right-hand man, has promised to continue his predecessor's policies.

Japan's diplomatic policies in particular will not change much. Suga, who has little foreign policy experience, is expected to inherit Abe's legacy. That is probably why Suga is described as "Little Abe." It remains to be seen if he can inject fresh air into Japanese politics which has tilted further toward the right.

In this context, it is hard to predict that Suga will make any tangible efforts to mend ties with South Korea which are at an all-time low due to history-related disputes. For this reason, many political experts are skeptical about any quick breakthrough in the strained bilateral relationship.

But this does not mean that Seoul and Tokyo should do little to nothing to have better ties. Both countries need to take Abe's resignation and his successor's installation as an opportunity to end their animosity and move toward friendship and partnership. They should not burn all their bridges.

More than anything else, both sides must make all-out efforts to narrow their differences over the modern history of Japan's aggression and colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. The new leadership should first reflect on its shameful past and then make a sincere apology for atrocities it inflicted on Koreans and other Asians before and during World War II.

Under Abe's nearly eight-year rule, Seoul-Tokyo relations have been aggravated over Imperial Japan's wartime sex slavery and forced labor. President Moon Jae-in, who took power in May 2017, nullified a contentious bilateral agreement over the sex slavery issue.

Bilateral ties hit their lowest after the Supreme Court here ruled in 2018 that Japanese firms must pay compensation to surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. The Abe administration imposed restrictions on exports of key materials essential for Korean firms to produce semiconductors and display panels. It also excluded Korea from its list of favored trading partners in apparent retaliation to the ruling.

Tokyo has argued that all reparation issues were settled by the 1965 treaty that normalized diplomatic ties between the two countries. However, the Korean side has maintained that individuals are still eligible to file compensation claims against the Japanese companies. If they keep sticking to their positions, they cannot resolve the problem.

Now both sides should resume high-level talks. They also need to consider holding a summit. Their top leaders can meet face-to-face at a trilateral summit with China which Korea is scheduled to host in November. Through dialogue, Seoul and Tokyo can restore their lost trust. We hope they will bridge differences, improve ties and forge a forward-looking partnership.

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