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[Newsmaker] New envoy to Japan faces daunting task

Yoo Heung-soo appears to be a confident and seasoned politician. Though he has yet to grasp all the pending issues and diplomatic terminology, his hale, vigorous and poised figure defies concerns about him being Korea’s oldest-ever ambassador to Japan.

The 76-year-old former lawmaker, provincial governor and national police chief is scheduled to fly to Tokyo on Sunday to take on what is currently one of Korea’s most challenging diplomatic posts.

He received a letter of credence from President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, and will succeed Lee Byung-kee, who is now director of the National Intelligence Service.

“I will make my utmost efforts to make next year a new starting point for Korea-Japan relations, marking the 50th anniversary of their normalization,” Yoo said during a meeting with reporters, citing Park’s Aug. 15 Liberation Day address.

“The relationship has long been going through ups and downs but now it’s almost worse than ever. … No matter what, this situation ought not to continue.” 
President Park Geun-hye (right) presents her letter of credence to new ambassador to Japan Yoo Heung-soo at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
President Park Geun-hye (right) presents her letter of credence to new ambassador to Japan Yoo Heung-soo at Cheong Wa Dae on Thursday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

The two countries’ relations are at their lowest ebb in decades, with their historical and territorial feuds showing no signs of abating.

In the face of the grave challenges, Yoo’s appointment has triggered criticism over not only his age and lack of diplomatic experience but also his personal ties with presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, who is in charge of reshuffles of high-level officials.

The relationship between Yoo and Kim dates back to their high school years in Busan. Later, they studied law together at Seoul National University and served in the intelligence standing committee while at the National Assembly.

During the press conference, he appeared to have not yet mastered the sensitive bilateral issues such as the now-defunct intelligence sharing pact. As he struggled for diplomatic jargon such as “summon,” other officials nearby offered support.

As an envoy to Tokyo, Yoo is not without merits. The head of the Korea-Japan Friendship Association boasts a wide network of contacts among retired and incumbent ranking politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; his father Shintaro Abe, the former foreign minister; and Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Taro Aso. Officials and politicians acquainted with him also pointed to his deft command of the local language and political nous from decades of experience in parliament and public service.

Among the top tasks at hand is how to resolve the issue of Japan’s sexual slavery involving Korean women during World War II. The two nations have been holding director-general level talks on a monthly basis since April but are struggling to close the gap in their arguments.

With Seoul considering the issue as the cornerstone for rapprochement, a comprehensive and lasting resolution acceptable to the victims would make way for a summit between Park and Abe.

“The two leaders must meet ― but for that Japan’s sincerity should come first,” Yoo said.

“The historical row aside, though, cooperation should continue on other issues of common interest, such as culture and economy.”

After passing the national civil service exam in 1962, Yoo served in the police including as chief of the Busan and Seoul bureaus and as national commissioner general.

He entered politics in 1982 as governor of South Chungcheong Province and served five terms as a lawmaker of what is now the ruling Saenuri Party.

As a lawmaker, he chaired the parliamentary panel on foreign affairs and unification and an association of Korean and Japanese lawmakers. Since 2007, he has been a senior adviser to the party.

By Shin Hyon-hee (
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Korea Herald daum