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International relations

Japan foreign minister to go to South Korea leader's inauguration

PM Kishida will not attend without progress in talks over historical disputes

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (fourth from the right) met with a South Korean delegation in Tokyo last week. 

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan plans to send Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol's inauguration ceremony next week, deciding not to consent to Seoul's wish for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to attend, government sources said Monday.

Seoul had hoped for Kishida's presence at the May 10 event to help improve bilateral relations that have soured over historical disputes which stem from Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

But the sources said Tokyo has decided the Japanese leader cannot go without any guarantee of progress on the disagreements.

During his stay, Hayashi is expected to hold meetings with key officials of the new South Korean government with the hope they will agree to work toward mending political ties that have sunk to their lowest level in years under the administration of the current president, Moon Jae In, the sources said.

Calling for a "future-oriented" approach, Yoon sent a delegation to Japan last week for meetings with Kishida, Hayashi and other ministers to seek to repair bilateral ties, with the prime minister telling the visitors, "We have no time to spare in improving Japan-South Korea relations."

Tokyo, however, has not wavered in its stance that South Korea should follow through on agreements aimed at resolving the disputes including a 2015 deal that settled "finally and irreversibly" the issue of "comfort women" procured for Japan's wartime military brothels.

The South Korean delegation, led by Chung Jin Suk, deputy speaker of the National Assembly, was in Japan for five days through Thursday, but it did not present any possible concrete solution to the long-standing issues, according to the sources.

Some Japanese ruling party lawmakers are also against Kishida heading to South Korea at this point out of concern that Japan's stance could be interpreted as being too conciliatory.

Yoon's inauguration comes as the United States is seeking to boost its trilateral security cooperation with Japan and South Korea following North Korea's renewed missile and nuclear threat, and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

When Moon's inaugural ceremony was held in May 2017, no guests were invited from overseas as he took office just a day after the election. His predecessor Park Geun Hye had resigned over a corruption and abuse-of-power scandal after being impeached by parliament.

During the period of Moon's government, the wartime disputes that cast a pall on diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul included the issue of compensation demands from South Koreans over what they claim was wartime forced labor.

In addition, they have been at odds over islets controlled by Seoul and claimed by Tokyo, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea, as well as over Japanese restrictions on semiconductor material exports to South Korea imposed in July 2019.

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