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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 1)

All News 07:04 October 01, 2021

Expectations for new Japan PM
Kishida urged to focus on normalizing ties with Seoul

Fumio Kishida, Japan's former foreign minister, won the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) leadership contest Wednesday, and will likely become the country's 100th prime minister succeeding the unpopular Yoshihide Suga. Kishida defeated former Defense Minister Taro Kono by 257 votes to 170 in a run-off.

Kishida will surely be chosen as prime minister during a parliamentary session Monday, riding on the LDP's majority status in the lower house. With the envisaged power shift in Japan, expectations are growing that the new leader will manage to find a breakthrough in the frozen relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Suga, who is leaving after serving only one year, has been negative regarding dialogue with South Korea, refusing to have any summits with President Moon Jae-in.

The relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest ebb since 1965 when they normalized ties. The relationship has continued to deteriorate over Japan's wartime sex slavery and compensation for wartime forced labor. The bilateral conflict has worsened further since Japan imposed curbs on exporting some essential items to Korean companies in retaliation to Korean courts' rulings on the wartime matters.

Kishida will face multiple challenges in finding solutions to the knotty problems. He was foreign minister in 2015 when he signed an agreement with his then Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se for the settlement of the sex slavery issue. He has maintained that "Japan carried out what it should do regarding the issue and the ball is now in Seoul's court." He has also said the future for the two countries will not be open unless Seoul abides by international law.

Worse still, the Daejeon District Court recently ordered Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy to sell assets to compensate South Koreans forced to work for it during World War II. All these and others indicate ominous prospects for bilateral relations. Yet, there are some signs that will likely help improve things.

For starters, President Moon has been seeking to improve bilateral ties through a summit, but to no avail. Regarding the issue of wartime forced labor, he opposed the idea of having the Japanese firm sell assets, saying "it would not be desirable for bilateral ties," during a New Year press conference in January.

Kishida has also at times been citing the need for dialogue with Seoul. As a consensus builder within the LDP, we hope he will take a moderate posture in dealing with Korea's issues without resorting to an excessive conservative approach. In yet another positive sign, a recent poll showed an increasing number of Koreans have been starting to have a more favorable view on Japan.

It is time for South Korea and Japan to solidify their cooperation to cope with growing security and economic challenges in the region as seen in the muscle flexing by China, in particular. Both sides should roll up their sleeves to mend ties and move forward toward mutually beneficial relations.

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