South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol told Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday he has no intention of using wartime history issues with Japan for domestic political gains, in yet another sign the new leader will seek to repair frayed bilateral ties.
"The future matters for the relationship between nations. I am opposed to bringing historical issues into domestic politics," Yoon said at a meeting with a cross-party group of lawmakers from Japan, according to one of the participants.
Yoon's remarks appear intended to dispel perceptions in Japan that South Korean leaders often pick quarrels with Tokyo over those issues to turn public attention away from domestic problems, particularly when they find their popularity waning.
According to Fukushiro Nukaga, who heads the lawmakers' group, Yoon also described South Korea and Japan as "important partners that share democratic values and a market economy," and said improvement in relations will be a "common benefit."
During Wednesday's meeting in Seoul, Yoon also said he is ready to resume flights connecting Tokyo's Haneda airport and Seoul's Gimpo airport. Flights on the route have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As the main conservative opposition candidate, Yoon won the presidential election in March by a razor-thin margin with a call for a "future-oriented" approach to relations with Japan.
Nukaga, a ruling Liberal Democratic Party member and former finance minister, spoke with reporters after their talks.
Members of his group, which is dedicated to promoting exchanges between the two Asian neighbors, also held talks with their South Korean counterparts earlier Wednesday and shared hopes that the launch of the new administration will be "a starting point" toward a better relationship.
Nukaga said at the meeting that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will aim to further promote bilateral exchanges that have been disrupted by the pandemic, and that his group will give its "full support" to the goal.
Kim Jin Pyo, who leads the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians Union, said he wants "various matters of concern" between the two sides to be resolved "as if snow melts."
Chung Jin Suk, deputy speaker of South Korea's National Assembly, proposed during the meeting that lawmakers from both countries play a soccer tournament sometime after a House of Councillors election in Japan this summer, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 2002 World Cup, which was co-hosted by the two nations.
Issues stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, such as wartime labor, have long cast a shadow over bilateral ties. Relations became further strained under the administration of Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae In, who was in power for five years from 2017.
The Japanese lawmakers attended Yoon's inaugural ceremony on Tuesday, along with Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who was sent to the event as Kishida's special envoy.
In a letter given to Yoon during his meeting with Hayashi, Kishida called for better bilateral ties and expressed high expectations for Yoon's leadership, while Yoon voiced hope to meet with his Japanese counterpart "at an early date."
In Japan, Kishida faces pressure from members of his own party who remain skeptical about South Korean pledges to seek better ties. They say Japan should not take actions that can be perceived as too conciliatory before Seoul takes some specific action to mend ties.
Masahisa Sato, chief of the LDP Foreign Affairs Division, told a party meeting on Wednesday in Tokyo that the government "should wait for South Korea to propose solutions (for the pending issues) that are acceptable to Japan."
"Setting aside chats at a multinational meeting, summit talks should not be held" between Japan and South Korea, Sato said, adding, "We should get away from the delusional idea that rosy Japan-South Korea relations will come."
No face-to-face talks have been held between Japanese and South Korean leaders since December 2019.