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Lee Nak-yon was nominated Wednesday to serve as South Korea's next prime minister.   © Yonhap/Kyodo

South Korean prime minister pick seen as point man on Japan

Lee fluent in Japanese; nominee cultivated deep ties to country

SEOUL -- President Moon Jae-in's nominee for prime minister, South Jeolla Province Gov. Lee Nak-yon, likely will play a key role in Seoul's relationship with Tokyo as one of the few members of the new South Korean administration bringing experience with Japan.

Lee, Moon's first appointment, visited Tokyo about a month ago to hear from academics and others about the state of bilateral relations as well as the views of Japanese politicians toward South Korea.

The governor has a long history with Japan. He worked in Tokyo as a special correspondent with the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper for more than three years starting in February 1990. Lee eagerly cultivated Japanese contacts while there and later called this period an important time in his 21-year reporting career.

Later, as a National Assembly member, Lee was a valuable conduit to Japan's political world with his strong command of Japanese. He served for many years as a senior officer in the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union.

After Moon withdrew from politics following the 2009 death of former President Roh Moo-hyun, Lee urged him to run for president in 2012 and played a leading role in his campaign.

Though Moon himself has few connections to Japan, he did take a day trip there during his 2012 presidential campaign, meeting with university professors and SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son, among others. "I have to know about Japan," Moon said.

Among those Moon spoke with was Masao Okonogi, a professor emeritus at Keio University. "He listens to people's opinions, but I felt like he's not the type to be swayed by them," Okonogi said.

"He understands that foreign policy and national security aren't his strong suit, so he'll probably use a brain trust," the professor added.

One such adviser and a rumored pick for an important post in the new government is Yonsei University professor Kim Ki-jung, who has worked closely with Japanese scholars. Kim participated in a Japanese-South Korean research project to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Experts also await Moon's choice of an ambassador to Japan.

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