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Mourning for Abe gives Yoon diplomatic opportunities

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Monday July 11, 2022

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Friday is giving diplomatic outreach opportunities to the Yoon Suk-yeol administration.  

President Yoon plans to send a special delegation led by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo to Tokyo to attend Abe’s official memorial service. The delegation will include People Power Party (PPP) deputy speaker Chung Jin-suk and other senior lawmakers. They will extend Yoon’s condolences to the Japanese government and people and pay respects to Abe.  

Yoon plans to pay his personal respects at a memorial altar at the Japanese embassy’s cultural center in central Seoul, according to his presidential office.

Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin pays respects at a memorial altar for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Japanese Embassy’s public information and cultural center in central Seoul Monday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

He was quick to send a condolence message to Abe’s wife, Akie Abe, Friday, after Japan’s longest-serving prime minister died from injuries sustained from a shooting while delivering a campaign speech in Nara on Friday.  

Abe’s sudden death came ahead of Japan’s upper house elections Sunday, which resulted in a sweeping victory for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito.  

Efforts to improve relations between Korea and Japan, mired by historical disputes, were expected some time after Japan’s House of Councillors elections.  

Abe’s death is serving as a catalyst for high-level exchanges between Seoul and Tokyo, and an opportunity to normalize so-called “shuttle diplomacy” between the countries, a key factor for improving bilateral relations.

“President Yoon ordered the delegation not to be remiss when extending condolences to the bereaved family and the Japanese people who are grieving over the sudden death of former Prime Minister Abe,” a government official said Monday. “Once the Japanese side’s memorial service schedule is confirmed, a delegation will be dispatched to deliver a message of condolence from President Yoon.”

Yoon has been calling for bilateral relations to be mended.  

Seoul and Tokyo have faced deteriorated bilateral relations in recent years due to historical issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule, such the compensation of forced laborers and wartime sexual slavery victims.  

During the presidential transition period in late April, Yoon dispatched a policy consultative group to Tokyo, which delivered a personal letter to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The delegation was led by Rep. Chung Jin-suk.  

Yoon and Kishida met several times on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid recently, and presidential officials expressed optimism that there is a top-level agreement to try to improve ties.  

Diplomatic sources say Yoon’s condolence efforts could be a turning point, stressing the importance of friendly nations standing together in times of difficulties.  

On Monday morning, Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin paid his respects at a memorial altar for Abe at the Japanese embassy’s cultural center. He had returned from a trip from Bali for a G-20 ministers’ meeting and talks with his Japanese and U.S. counterparts last week.

“I came today to express my deepest condolences,” Park told reporters afterwards. “I had been thinking that if I visit to Japan, I would like to meet with former Prime Minister Abe to get some good advice.”

Park had initially been expected to visit Tokyo ahead of the NATO summit in Madrid last month, but it was delayed to after Japan’s upper house elections.  

Park said in a press briefing later, “If I make a visit to Japan, we will discuss various pending issues between Korea and Japan and ways to restore trust between the two countries.”  

He acknowledged that Japan is “most concerned” about orders for the liquidation of Japanese companies’ assets in Korea, adding, “We plan to try to come up with a desirable solution before it happens.”  

In 2018, the Korean Supreme Court made landmark rulings ordering two Japanese companies to individually compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II.  

Tokyo says that resolving the issue of the forced labor compensation rulings is a prerequisite for improving relations with Korea.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a final verdict as early as August on whether to allow the liquidation of assets held by the Japanese companies.

Park added, “If Korea-Japan dialogue becomes more active in the future, there will be an opportunity for in-depth discussion on a flexible and open approach to North Korea,” both bilaterally and through trilateral cooperation with the United States.  

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]