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June 27, 2017

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Park in good position for progress

When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington last week for a summit meeting with President Barack Obama, he was asked about Japan's relations with South Korea, in view of the common threat from North Korea.

The Japanese leader responded by saying, "South Korea is the most important neighbor for us."

With the Abe-Obama summit now history, the spotlight has shifted to South Korea, where on Monday its first woman president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, was inaugurated.

Actually Feb. 22, the day of the Abe press conference, was marked in Japan's Shimane Prefecture as Takeshima Day — a day set aside to assert Japan's sovereignty over the islands disputed with South Korea, which calls them Dokdo. For the first time, an official from Tokyo was dispatched to take part, raising the profile of the event.

The South Koreans protested. However, Japanese officials pointed out that the official dispatched was only of vice ministerial rank and that no cabinet member had attended.

During the election campaign, Abe had pledged that, if elected, "I will elevate Takeshima Day to the level of a central government event." That was meant to win votes but, now that he is prime minister, he has to ensure good relations with Seoul.

The decision to send a person of vice ministerial rank no doubt represented an attempt to strike a balance between honoring his campaign pledge and not wishing to offend South Korea and its new leader.

Hopefully, the newly inaugurated South Korean leader will not feel it necessary to respond.

Abe has said that his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, and Park's father were "best friends" and that he himself had met her a couple of times.

With this personal connection, it may be easier for the two leaders to establish a relationship of trust. Trust is scarce in the Japan-South Korea relationship.

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