Kishida hopeful of improved ties with Seoul after Yoon Suk-yeol’s election win

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday congratulated Yoon Suk-yeol on winning South Korea’s presidential election, expressing hope for an improved bilateral relationship that continues to be strained over wartime issues.

“I intend to closely work with the new president to improve Japan-South Korea ties,” Kishida told reporters, underscoring that a healthy relationship between the neighboring countries is crucial for global peace and stability.

Amid the Ukraine crisis and North Korea’s repeated missile launches in recent weeks, Kishida also said trilateral cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea is important.

Regarding the issues of wartime Korean workers and “comfort women,” a euphemism for women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II, Kishida said, “It is important to closely communicate with the new president and his government to regain a healthy relationship based on Japan’s consistent stance (on the matters).”

“Japan-South Korea relations are in difficult circumstances, and we cannot leave them as they are,” Kishida said.

In Seoul, Yoon vowed Thursday to build a future-oriented relationship with Japan, hours after defeating the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung in a tight race.

“South Korea-Japan relations especially need to focus on finding what kind of future movement would benefit both countries and the people of the two countries,” Yoon told reporters.

“During the process of seeking cooperation between South Korea and Japan, it will be needed to investigate the truth of the past and put our heads together over the problems that should be solved,” Yoon said.

A sign for an overseas voting procedure for the South Korean presidential election remains in a Korean town in Osaka on Thursday, a day after Yoon Suk-yeol won the race. | KYODO
A sign for an overseas voting procedure for the South Korean presidential election remains in a Korean town in Osaka on Thursday, a day after Yoon Suk-yeol won the race. | KYODO

The president-elect also said he will firmly deal with North Korea but leave the door for inter-Korean dialogue open. In a phone conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday morning, the two agreed to meet in the near future to improve the U.S.-South Korea alliance, he added.

Ties between Japan and South Korea have sunk to the lowest level in decades since Seoul effectively nullified a 2015 agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue and South Korea’s top court in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation to former requisitioned workers, a ruling Tokyo dismissed as a violation of international law.

Japan maintains that Seoul, rather than Tokyo, must act to resolve the issues.

Japan’s business community also expressed hope for close bilateral cooperation.

“We hope the two countries will work even more closely together at the level of their leaders and more broadly, and establish a future-oriented relationship based on the 1998 Japan-South Korea partnership,” said Masakazu Tokura, chief of the Japan Business Federation, the country’s biggest business lobby, in a statement.

The joint declaration issued by then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung called for developing bilateral relations for the 21st century.

Tokura said the two sides have many areas in which they can cooperate, including on global warming, low birthrates and the graying of their populations.

The election outcome was also welcomed by the Korean community in Japan, with many voicing hope for positive changes under the leadership of Yoon.

“There is a part of me that is hopeful as (Yoon) says he will improve relations,” said Sin Hui-sun, 60, who runs a makeup shop in Tokyo.

“I will be happy if the two countries become friendly and the economy gets better,” Sin said.

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