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Japan-South Korea rift

South Korea picks Japan hand as Tokyo envoy in bid to fix ties

Moon tasks Kang Chang-il with solving thorny wartime labor issue

Kang Chang-il, a former lawmaker in South Korea's ruling Democratic Party, has been named as the country's new ambassador to Japan.    © EPA/Yonhap/Jiji

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's new choice of ambassador to Tokyo is a fluent Japanese speaker with close ties to lawmakers in the country, but faces the thorny task of mending relations between the two East Asian neighbors.

Moon has tasked Kang Chang-il, a former four-term lawmaker in the ruling Democratic Party and leader of the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union for four years until May, with finding a solution to the issue of wartime labor that has set the countries at odds.

In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans who were forced to work in mines and factories during the war. After the companies -- Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries -- opted not to pay, district courts in South Korea ruled that their assets in the country were eligible for seizure.

The issue -- as well as Japan's export controls on semiconductor part supplies to South Korea -- continues to haunt relations, with neither side appearing willing to compromise.

Analysts say that the South Korean government should give Kang, who studied Asian history at the University of Tokyo, the authority to negotiate with Japan over the issue.

"I hope that the government reaches internal consensus on the wartime labor issue, letting the new ambassador start his job with it," said Jin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute. "So that he can play an active role in resolving the problem."

Jin said that Kang is well-positioned to take his job thanks to his wide human network in Japan and good command of Japanese, adding that his predecessors have struggled with connections and language.

"Kang is a man who can communicate with Japanese politicians. It's time to suggest a new solution to Japan based on discussions in the government," Jin said.

The presidential Blue House said that Kang was chosen for the post "in hope that his expertise, experience and longtime connections would lead to an improvement in cooling bilateral ties."

"The choice of Kang reflects [South Korean] President Moon Jae-in's desire to improve relations with Japan," said a Blue House source.

Lee Won-deog, a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University, said Moon is sending a signal to restore its relations with Japan by appointing Kang as he was aggressively trying to resolve the wartime labor issue.

"The government wants to use the Tokyo Olympics as momentum to continue the president's peace process. For this, it should restore its relations with Japan, and to do this, it should resolve the wartime laborers issue," Lee said. "That's why Moon picked up Kang as the new ambassador."

The 68-year-old served as a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party of Korea for four terms until May 2020.

Kang traveled to Japan many times after becoming the head of the bilateral parliamentarians' union in 2017, where he met prominent political figures such a previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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