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Seoul wary of Japanese minister’s resignation

South Korea appeared wary Monday of the resignation of Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, an official who had taken a firm position against North Korea and sought strong cooperation with Seoul in dealing with the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Maehara resigned late Sunday as the result of a growing political scandal over his acceptance of political donations from a Korean resident in Japan. Japanese law prohibits politicians from receiving campaign donations from foreign nationals.

The sudden resignation of Maehara not only casts doubt over several important diplomatic events this year, including an annual foreign ministers’ meeting of South Korea, Japan and China, but also raises concerns over Tokyo’s stance in dealing with Pyongyang.

“We believe, and also hope, his resignation will not negatively affect Korea-Japan ties. It is a regretfable incident for us, however, considering how deeply Minister Maehara understood issues with Korea,” a Seoul official said, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to represent the government on the issue.

Holding the March 19-20 ministerial meeting of Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing as planned is the biggest pending issue as the Japanese foreign minister post is left vacant, the official added.

“But as this year’s host, we believe Japan will somehow manage to open the meeting under the schedule,” he said.

As one of the strongest pro-Seoul politicians in Tokyo, Maehara was noticeably close to his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan, according to officials here.

While taking a firm position against Pyongyang’s provocations and China’s somewhat vague stance toward the issue, the 49-year-old minister had made a special effort in improving relations with Seoul through diplomatic as well as financial cooperation.

Meeting with Kim in January and February this year, Maehara had expressed strong support for South Korea’s position that the North must first solve issues with Seoul before rejoining larger-scale denuclearization talks with regional powers.

Maehara’s resignation has also renewed controversy over the status of permanent Korean residents in Japan.

The Korean national who reportedly made donations to the former minister told a local media outlet that she and Maehara had known each other for more than three decades, and are like family.

The 72-year-old Korean national also said she hadn’t been aware of the law forbidding donations from foreign residents.

The law is “extremely discriminative” toward permanent residents like her, she said.

“Nationality did not matter. I thought of (Maehara) as my own son and wanted to help him in some small way,” she said in the interview. “I have paid tax for the past 38 years just like any Japanese. How come I do not have the right to vote or the right to make donations to whomever I want?”

There are a little more than 900,000 Koreans in Japan, including both Korean citizen permanent residents and Korean naturalized Japanese citizens. The current Japanese laws do not grant Korean nationals with suffrage and limit other rights.

Meanwhile, Japan’s chief nuclear envoy Shinsuke Sugiyama visited Seoul on Monday for talks on North Korea and bilateral relations, pushing ahead with the trip despite the minister’s resignation.

Sugiyama will discuss with South Korean officials Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program, the purported return of Korean royal books by his government, the upcoming review of Japanese textbooks and other bilateral issues, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said.

Currently the director-general of the Japanese foreign ministry’s Asian affairs bureau, Sugiyama formerly served as political affairs minister at Japan’s Embassy in Seoul.

During his three-day visit, the Japanese envoy will meet with Chang Won-sam, South Korean Foreign Ministry director-general handling Japanese affairs, First Vice Foreign Minister Park Suk-hwan and chief nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lac, according to the ministry.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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