Lee is the last hopePrime Minister Lee Nak-yon will represent Seoul at the Oct. 22 Japanese emperor enthronement ceremony. He will be visiting the neighboring country for three days to congratulate the first ascension of a new monarch in 29 years. Former Prime Minister Kang Young-hoon attended Emperor Naruhito’s father and former emperor Akihito’s enthronement ceremony in 1990.
Lee has a graver mission while he is in Tokyo. He must try to break the ice between Japan with bilateral relations stalemated since Korean Supreme Court orders for wartime labor compensations a year ago. He is fluent in Japanese and well-networked, having served as a correspondent in Tokyo and the co-head of the lawmakers’ federation of the two countries.
Japanese media reported that Lee could hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his stay there. President Moon Jae-in did not get a separate time with host Abe when he attended the G-20 summit conference in Japan in June. The two also did not meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September. Ideally, Lee could be carrying a presidential letter expressing hope for recovery in the relationship, to which Abe responds favorably. Since Moon reportedly had considered attending the ceremony himself, he must be willing to normalize ties.
The fissures that deepened over the last year aren’t likely to be easily patched up. Abe also could be preoccupied as a host tending to envoys from 50 countries. Despite working-level dialogue, the two countries are still poles apart on the issues over court rulings and the interpretation of the 1965 basic settlement terms. But leaving the standoff as it is cannot be good for either country. Agreeing on the need to find a solution itself could be a starting point. Once state leadership sets the goal to improve ties, talks over compensation for wartime labor, trade restrictions and the extension of the mutual defense information-sharing pact could progress.
Without a breakthrough, the General Security of Military Information Agreement becomes invalid after the expiration of the treaty on Nov. 22. The collapse of the mutual military pact could shake the foundation of the security alliance among Korea, the United States and Japan. If the seized assets of Japanese companies for noncompliance to court orders become liquidated, bilateral relations will become irreparable. Lee must try to find a breakthrough as if it is the last chance to save bilateral ties. The Blue House and Foreign Ministry must back up the prime minister so that he does not return home empty-handed.