By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- Relations between South Korea and Japan, long strained due to disputes over shared history, face another key moment with the advent of Japan's new leadership amid a mixture of cautious hope for a turnaround and lingering doubts about an immediate breakthrough.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is widely expected to hold his first phone talks with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday. Cheong Wa Dae confirmed that the two sides are in consultations for that.
Kishida, who took office on Oct. 4 to succeed Yoshihide Suga, already had a series of phone calls with the leaders of the United States, Australia, India and Britain, members of Washington-led security alliances, as well as presidents of China and Russia.
As usual, Moon is likely to convey a congratulatory message to Kishida and exchange carefully chosen words on the often-prickly Seoul-Tokyo ties, or diplomatic rhetoric, in their introductory phone conversation.
But government officials and observers will pay attention to the overall tone of their talks that may serve as a litmus test for future consultations on such thorny issues as compensation for Korean victims of Japan's wartime forced labor and a protracted trade row.
The liberal Moon administration has been making conciliatory gestures toward Tokyo to normalize ties with what it calls "a very important neighbor."
During a Liberation Day speech in August, Moon said his government remains open to dialogue with Japan to step up forward-looking cooperation while seeking a diplomatic solution to the feud mainly over history.
In July, Moon planned to visit Tokyo for the Olympics and hold his first summit with Suga, but he decided not to go at the last minute after what his office called unacceptable remarks by a Seoul-based Japanese diplomat.
Bilateral relations have remained at the lowest ebb in decades since 2019, when Japan imposed a series of trade restrictions against South Korea in what many viewed as economic retaliation against Seoul court decisions in favor of Koreans forced into free labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule.
Japan has claimed that all colonial-era issues were settled with the 1965 treaty and later agreements, and the new premier vowed to take a "consistent stance" on wartime issues.
Kishida, who was behind a 2015 agreement with South Korea to resolve the issues tied to women forced into wartime sexual slavery by Japan, pressured Seoul to take steps to patch up ties soured by long-pending historical issues.
"I strongly urge the South Korean side to present an acceptable solution at an early date to bring Japan and South Korea back to healthy relations," the prime minister said during a parliamentary session on Wednesday.
Still, Kishida, a former foreign minister regarded as a moderate liberal, acknowledged the need for a thaw in icy relations with Seoul, saying the trilateral cooperation among Japan, South Korea and the U.S. is "absolutely necessary" to counter North Korea's threats.
South Korea's ambassador to the U.S., Lee Soo-hyuck, said Wednesday that Washington "strongly stresses" the importance of the trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, noting the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has been working hard via various diplomatic channels to help improve their relations.
While the close neighbors need to address their differences over history issues, observers suggested they open up chances to gradually increase cooperation in security and economic areas to promote regional stability and revive the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal is in line with the Moon government's push for a two-pronged approach toward Tokyo to draw a line between regional security partnership and history-related matters.
"It has become more evident that Seoul needs to cooperate with Japan and the U.S. in the face of growing threat from North Korea," said Choi Eun-mi, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank. "Separate from the historical issues, the two nations should make efforts to improve ties via bilateral and multilateral diplomatic channels to coordinate the approach on North Korea."
Despite the cautious hope, the prospect remains uncertain, as many see Kishida's later-than-expected phone call with Moon signals no dramatic shift in their soured ties.
"The phone talks between Moon and Kishida, which come even after China and Russia, show Japan's chilly attitude toward South Korea and hesitancy to make efforts to improve the bilateral ties," Lee Won-deok, a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University, said.
For now, Lee expects Kishida to stay on course with his predecessors' policy, as the new Cabinet does not want to be seen as soft on Seoul to its conservative voter base ahead of the Oct. 31 general election. South Korea will also pick its new president in early March 2022, two months before Moon's single, five-year term ends. Japan may wait for the next South Korean government for full-scale efforts to address pending issues.
Lee said, "There is little incentive for Kishida to compromise on historical issues with South Korea ahead of the election, considering that he started with a lower approval rating than his predecessor Suga."
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