S. Korea, Japan have ‘long way to go’ in improving relations: new ambassador

June 29, 2016

SEOUL, June 29 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s newly-appointed ambassador to Japan said Wednesday that the landmark December deal reached between Seoul and Tokyo to resolve the comfort women issue have provided a “breakthrough,” but there is still a “long way to go” in improving their bilateral ties to a desirable level.

Lee Joon-gyu, who served as ambassador to India until last year, also said that one of his priorities as the country’s top diplomat in Japan would be to normalize the severely hurt dialogue channels between key government ministries and agencies of the two neighboring countries. He is expected to start his official work from next week.

“For the past four to five years, the South Korea-Japan relations have gone through many challenges. Fortunately, the December 28 deal reached between governments of the two countries have provided a breakthrough in improving their ties,” Lee said at a forum held in Seoul. “However, there is still a long way to go before we can enhance the ties to a desirable level.”

South Korea and Japan reached the deal in which Tokyo expressed an apology for its colonial-era atrocities and agreed to provide 1 billion yen (US$9.6 million) for the foundation aimed at supporting the surviving victims, euphemistically called comfort women. The deal aims to put an end to the comfort women issue once and for all.

The decision was hailed by the international community as a step in the right direction given that the comfort women issue has been a long-standing obstacle to ties between the two neighboring countries.

Victims and liberal civic groups blame the government for striking a deal lacking Japan’s acknowledgment of legal responsibility. They also said the agreement was reached without prior consultation with the victims.

“Above all, we need to faithfully carry out what was agreed upon and make efforts to restore and advance the ties between the two nations on both government and people’s fronts,” Lee said. “Such effort to restore the relations should be made simultaneously not just in political but also in economic, social and cultural areas.”




Lee remains worried that there are so many uncertainties that could make bilateral ties go awry, saying that what is important is to minimize the fallout and prevent a one-off problem from derailing their push for normalization of relations.

“There are so many problems in Korea-Japan relations, which is a reflection of how much they are engaged in each other,” Lee said. “As such, it’s hard to predict when and what kinds of problem can happen.”

“It is just like a booby trap, which can go off if you step on it. What matters is to minimize the fallout even after it goes off and keep the underlying efforts to normalize the current ties alive,” he added.

Lee hoped that President Park Geun-hye’s planned visit to Japan during the second half of the year for a summit will serve as a “precious” and “innovative” opportunity to improve Seoul-Tokyo ties.

He apparently referred to a summit between heads of South Korea, Japan and China, which resumed last year mostly driven by the Seoul government. The exact time frame for the get-together this year has yet to be officially confirmed.

Touching on economic cooperation, Lee mentioned difficulties that companies have in entering each other’s markets, saying that it’s time for each side to seek close cooperation as the growth in their economies have reached a “critical point.”

“It is not normal that Hyundai Motor, the world’s fifth-largest carmaker, does not have a selling network in Japan…. It is not natural to see that such popular Samsung televisions and smartphones do not sell almost at all in Japan,” he said. “The extent might not be as serious, but I understand that Japanese companies doing business in Korea are also having similar problems.”

“I think it would be normal for companies to have around 20-30 percent of market shares in each other’s market. Things might not change even 20 years later if we leave this issue to businesses. It is the right time for each nation to pursue cooperation… at a time when their economic growth has reached a critical point.”


  1. Elisa Waggoner

    June 30, 2016 at 6:30 AM

    I am so glad for this article. The comfort women “issue” is not just “a long-standing obstacle to ties” as the article mentions, but a direct acknowledgment of pain and a symbol of hardship and oppression and cruelty that extends to colonialization but also back in history, which people will not and should not forget because that, too, is part of a heritage. It needs full acknowledgment, and I cannot see that a gesture, even a strong one, will put any pain completely into the past “once and for all.” It is actually dangerous to forget the cruelties we on all sides have committed in our cultures, because it leads to denial and complacency. I am part Jewish American and part Japanese American; people of all cultures can point to atrocities committed by and against various groups. We all need to be vigilant about building our ideals of peace with clear sightedness that the past (and present) are filled with counter-examples. That said, I am so glad to hear that there is diplomatic will to continue to improve relations between these great countries of such beautiful heritage and so many amazing contributions to continue to give the world, in art, culture, business and innovation. Leadership is difficult.

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