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Seoul braces for dealing with new Japanese minister

Matsumoto’s Ito connection invokes painful history but should not affect ties


Japan promptly named its new top diplomat this week after his predecessor resigned for accepting illegal political donations, a change South Korea views will have little impact on ties that have been running strong in recent years.

But compared to his predecessor Seiji Maehara, Tokyo’s incoming Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto appears somewhat of a political lightweight, which could give ministry bureaucrats a bigger say and bring changes to policies related to the Korean Peninsula.

Matsumoto’s blood ties to Hirobumi Ito, Korea’s first Japanese governor-general who led his country’s forced occupation of the peninsula, is also considered a delicate issue that could lead to fallouts with critics here.

In a phone call to his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan on Thursday, Matsumoto “promised to work closely with South Korea in developing bilateral relations,” a spokesman for Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said during a regular press briefing.

“We hope Minister Matsumoto will continue efforts in improving the relations based on the vast perspectives we know he has on the historical background of South Korea-Japan relations,” spokesman Cho Byung-jae said.

The replacement of Japanese foreign minister comes as Seoul and Tokyo have been strengthening cooperation over dealing with North Korea’s ongoing nuclear ambitions and other regional issues.

Largely in response to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s belief to overcome issues related to Japan’s brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan offered a renewed apology last year, promising measures including the return of centuries-old royal Korean books to Seoul.

Although Matsumoto is unlikely to make big changes to the policy of his predecessor, enlarged roles of officials including Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae could de-center the country’s policies toward South Korea, an aspect local officials seem aware of.
Takeaki Matsumoto
Takeaki Matsumoto
Hirobumi Ito
Hirobumi Ito

Former Minister Maehara was considered one of the strongest pro-Seoul politicians in Tokyo and was noticeably close to his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan.

Meeting with Kim in January and February this year, Maehara 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.

Matsumoto is also the great-great-grandson of Ito, who may be considered a hero in Japan for leading the country’s modernization, but is seen here as one of the main figures in the occupation of Korea.

Korea’s late independence fighter An Jung-geun assassinated Ito and was arrested and executed by Japanese authorities in northeastern China on March 26, 1910. His body is yet to be found or returned to his country, another issue Seoul has been requesting Tokyo’s cooperation on.

Although such blood relation will not be an issue as long as the Seoul-Tokyo ties run strong, it could become one source of anti-Japan sentiment here should the two sides fail to smoothly work on issues including Japan’s upcoming review of middle school textbooks and its promised return of the royal Korean books, analysts say.

Japan plans to review the text books in March or early April, a sensitive issue due to parts that lay claim to Seoul’s easternmost islets of Dokdo and glorify the country’s wartime past.

In a press conference Wednesday, Matsumoto echoed his predecessor’s position not to consider direct talks with Pyongyang until inter-Korean issues are solved, but repeated his government’s claim over Dokdo, renewing concerns.

The cluster of easternmost islets have long been a source of tension between the two neighboring states. South Korea currently has permanent residents and guards on the island.

Matsumoto will meet with Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kim during a trilateral foreign minister meeting also including China on March 19-20 in Kyoto.

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