Shinzo Abe, who is likely to be Japan’s next prime minister, will send a special envoy to Seoul to meet South Korea’s president-elect in an early attempt to mend frayed ties, he said yesterday.
Abe will dispatch a senior official from his Liberal Democratic Party to deliver a letter to Park Geun-hye, just days after the two triumphed in their own national elections.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul became icier earlier this year when a festering row over disputed islands suddenly flared up.
It quickly degenerated into a familiar confrontation over attitudes to shared history, with South Korea accusing Japan of not being contrite enough for its wartime behavior.
The emissary will be former Japanese finance minister Fukushiro Nukaga, a senior member of the Japan-South Korea parliamentarians’ league, who has relationships with senior figures in Seoul, media reports said.
Initial reports suggested Nukaga would leave yesterday evening, but it was later reported the visit would be put off until at least next week.
Abe is expected to become prime minister on Wednesday after a parliamentary vote.
The news comes amid hopes for a fresh start under almost simultaneous leadership transfers and as North Korea’s recent successful foray into rocket science renews concerns over stability in the region.
It also comes as China and Japan continue to slug it out diplomatically over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Ties between Japan and South Korea had appeared to be on the up earlier this year, with a currency swap in place and a near-miss on the signing of an intelligence-sharing deal.
However, a sudden visit to the Dokdo islands, which Japan claims as Takeshima, by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in August sent things careering out of control.
Abe’s sweeping parliamentary victory on Sunday was greeted with caution in South Korea, where newspapers pointed to past comments on reviewing Japan’s admissions over sex slavery.
Park promised on Thursday to work on building trust in Northeast Asia but, in an aside clearly aimed at Japan, stressed that stability had to be based on “a correct historical perception.”
Abe is likely to visit South Korea in February if he is invited to Park’s inauguration ceremony, the mass circulation Yomiuri Shimbun reported.
Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said Park and Abe had similar views on many strategic matters, but that the comfort women issue was a stumbling block.
“I think they could get along famously as long as some of these historical issues don’t raise their ugly heads,” he said.
“Frankly, the scenario that worries me is not that Abe is going to say something that’s provocative, but that one of his people ... will say something that gets blasted around the Internet as being the position of the Abe government on comfort women,” Cha said.
“With Park Geun-hye as not only the first female president, but the first female head of state in all of Northeast Asia, that would be very difficult for her,” he said.