- Lee Nak-yon is set to attend the Japanese emperor's enthronement ceremony on Tuesday - the highest-level visit by a South Korean official for months
- Analysts say Japan is unlikely to budge on historical disputes, but a letter from Moon Jae-in to Shinzo Abe may indicate Seoul is ready to improve relations
South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon is expected to attend Japanese Emperor Naruhito's enthronement ceremony on Tuesday, marking the country's highest-level visit to Japan since bilateral tensions escalated into a full-blown trade dispute in July.
Lee worked in Tokyo as a newspaper correspondent from 1990 to 1993 and is considered to be friendly to Japan.
But while South Korean media have expressed optimism that relations will improve with Lee's trip, Japanese media have remained silent on this point, only noting that Lee will represent President Moon Jae-in and will hand Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a personal message from Moon.
Bilateral relations are at their lowest point since 1965, after a South Korean court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate Korean wartime labourers during Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula.
The two sides also have deeply differing positions on the issue of "comfort women", who were forced to serve in frontline brothels for the Japanese military in the early decades of the last century.
Tokyo has been angered by what it sees as Seoul's refusal to adhere to treaties designed to draw a line under both historical controversies.
Tomohito Shinoda, a political-science professor at The International University of Japan, said it was not realistic for Japan to change its mind if South Korea kept "repeating the same demands".
"If Lee comes to Tokyo and has nothing new to propose, then there is going to be no progress at all," he said.
"Japanese people are just tired of hearing these constant South Korean criticisms. It's the same in government; there is strong 'Korea fatigue'."
Abe is also in a stronger position than his South Korean counterpart, who does not have the benefit of the Japanese leader's political strength and relatively robust economy.
"Moon has some very serious political considerations to take into account and he is trying to find ways to stabilise the government," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.
"And he realises that what has happened in the relationship with Japan over the last few years has not been productive and left Korea in a far weaker position than it was when he became president.
"South Korea can much less afford a prolonged trade war than Japan because the nation and its companies are under a lot of pressure from China as well as the broader uncertainties in international trade," he said.
The latest trade statistics back that up, with South Korea's exports " seen as a bellwether for global trade " slumping 19.5 per cent in the first 20 days of October, amid higher tariffs and uncertainties as a result of the US-China trade war. The nation's semiconductor sector, which accounts for one-fifth of the country's exports, has been particularly frail.
In early August, two months after export restrictions were imposed on chemicals critical to South Korea's semiconductor industry, Tokyo announced it was dropping South Korea from its list of preferred trading partners, adding bureaucracy and uncertainty to bilateral trade. Within hours, Seoul announced it was responding by removing Japan from its "white list" of trade partners.
That decision triggered a boycott of Japanese products among Korean consumers, with imports from Japan down a sharp 30 per cent and exports down by 21 per cent in the first 20 days of the month.
Total exports from Japan " the world's third-largest economy " fell by 5.2 per cent in September, hurt by weak international demand, with the auto parts and semiconductor-making equipment the hardest-hit sectors.
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Nagy believes the personal letter from Moon to Abe is an olive branch and an indication that Seoul is keen to return to a better working relationship in the areas of trade, security and politics, with the enthronement serving as the ideal occasion to communicate that message.
Abe will undoubtedly recognise it as such, although he still holds the stronger hand and is likely to continue to push for Seoul to unequivocally put an end to disputes over historical issues. It is a popular position in Japan and he and his party would lose political capital by not standing firm.
Preparations for Tuesday's enthronement ceremonies continue apace, with around 2,000 dignitaries and representatives of royal families from around the world flying into Tokyo ahead of the occasion.
An Air France aircraft that was reportedly carrying at least one of the dignitaries was forced to make an emergency landing at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport soon after midday on Monday after the crew reported a drop in pressure in the landing gear. The aircraft made a safe landing and there were no reports of any injuries.
Japan ready for Naruhito's enthronement, but postpones procession
Plans for an open-top parade along a 5km route through Tokyo immediately after the enthronement ceremony have been postponed out of respect for the dead and missing from Typhoon Hagibis, which caused widespread damage across large parts of eastern Japan on October 12.
Tuesday's celebrations are also likely to be affected by the weather, with heavy rain forecast throughout the day and palace officials making plans to move ceremonial court officials who were meant to occupy positions in the palace courtyard moved inside.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters
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