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Prime minister to attend Japanese emperor’s enthronement ceremony

Despite soured ties between South Korea and Japan, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon will attend the Japanese emperor’s enthronement ceremony next week, the government said Sunday.

According to the Prime Minister’s secretariat, Lee will visit Japan from Oct. 22 to 24 for the enthronement events of Japanese Emperor Naruhito. Lee will attend the enthronement banquet on Oct. 22, and another banquet hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Oct. 23, the secretariat said in a statement. 

South Korean Prime Minsiter Lee Nak-yon (Yonhap)
South Korean Prime Minsiter Lee Nak-yon (Yonhap)

It has not been confirmed whether Lee will hold a bilateral meeting with Abe, but political observers say a meeting between the two could serve as a chance to ease heightened tensions between the two countries.

Following the top Korean court’s ruling in October last year that ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor during World War II, the relationship between the two allies has soured to its lowest point in recent months, as Japan has refused to accept the court’s decision.

Japan has imposed tighter export restrictions on Korea. Seoul has hit back with similar export control plans and filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Tokyo’s export measures.

It also decided to withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo.

Lee and Abe’s meeting, if realized, would be the first time for top-level leaders of the two countries to meet in over a year. President Moon Jae-in and Abe last met in September last year, on the sidelines of a regional economic forum in Vladivostok, Russia.

In August, Kim Sang-jo, Cheong Wa Dae’s chief policy secretary who served as the chairman of the Fair Trade Commission, said the Japanese enthronement events would be a “crucial (turning) point” for the bilateral ties of the two countries.

The Korean prime minister is known to have ties with Japanese figures, having worked as a Tokyo correspondent before turning to politics.

Japanese media outlets, however, said it was “unlikely” Lee and Abe would meet, citing unnamed sources. In a report last week, Kyodo Agency said meetings for Lee may be arranged with former Japanese prime ministers.

Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne in May, as his father Emperor Emeritus Akihito became the first Japanese monarch to abdicate in over 200 years.

When Japanese Emperor Emeritus Akihito ascended the throne in November 1990, Korea sent Prime Minister Kang Young-hoon to attend the event.

By Jo He-rim (