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Abe worried about Tokyo-Seoul ties, settling abduction issue with Pyongyang

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech at the outset of a symposium held in Tokyo's Minato Ward on Oct. 9, 2018, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration in 1998. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that he is struggling to improve Japan's relations with South Korea in an effort to resolve North Korea's missile and nuclear issues as well as the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.

"Difficult problems lie ahead before our countries because we are neighbors. Political leadership is necessary to overcome such matters," Abe told a symposium held in Tokyo on Oct. 9 in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the 1998 Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration. "I'd like to cooperate with President Moon Jae-in in advancing bilateral relations."

Abe stressed in the symposium that he would like to build a "future-oriented" relationship between the two countries, which ended up highlighting the prime minister's enthusiasm for improving relations between Tokyo and Seoul, as President Moon did not attend a similar symposium held in his country on Oct. 1.

The Japanese government had intended to promote human exchanges between the two countries on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the declaration. However, around this past summer South Korea began to hint that it would disband the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation which was established to extend relief to former "comfort women" based on a bilateral agreement in 2015 to achieve a "final and irreversible" settlement of the wartime comfort women issue.

At a September summit meeting, Moon told Abe that South Korean public opinion called for the disbanding of the foundation, and South Korean news organizations reported that the president effectively notified the prime minister that the support program would be disbanded.

Japan is wary of South Korea's move as Tokyo views the foundation's disbanding as tantamount to scrapping the bilateral accord on the issue, and Prime Minister Abe has urged President Moon to "steadily implement the agreement."

If Seoul were to actually disband the foundation, it would inevitably worsen bilateral ties. The Japanese government is also worried about a ruling that the South Korean Supreme Court will hand down possibly in December on a damages suit filed by former South Koreans who were conscripted to work in Japan during World War II.

However, Japan has refrained from bitterly criticizing South Korea. The Defense Ministry has decided that the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) would not send a warship to an international fleet review in South Korea after Seoul suggested that the MSDF remove its "rising sun" flag, which South Korea and many other Asian countries view as a symbol of Japan's wartime militarism.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga refrained from making pointed statements on the matter. "The Defense Ministry will respond to the issue," said Suga, who serves as the top government spokesman.

An individual linked to the government said the cautious response was "aimed at preventing the matter from developing into a diplomatic issue."

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department)

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