TOKYO, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- Leadership changes in both Japan and South Korea may offer opportunities to improve ties strained by history and territorial issues, experts and officials said.
Speaking to Japan's The Mainichi Daily News, they, however, warned no quick results can be expected with the election of conservative leader Park Geun-hye as South Korea's president and hawkish Shinzo Abe, who will become Japan's next prime minister with the big victory of his Liberal Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections.
The Mainichi said Abe is awaiting Park's inauguration Feb. 25 to begin the process of improving relations.
"Ms. Park says she wants to improve relations between South Korea and Japan," a South Korean government source told the newspaper. "The new LDP sees relations with Korea as very important, and both nations want to cooperate to spur development in the region."
However, the report said the LDP's manifesto to change the Japanese Constitution to recast the Self-Defense Forces as a "national defense military" has raised concerns in South Korea.
Under the current pacifist Article 9 of Japan's post-war Constitution, the country renounced war as a means of settling international disputes. It also prohibits Japan from maintaining a military.
South Korean memories of Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 are still raw and bitter, especially because of the sexual enslavement of so-called "comfort women" by the former Imperial Japanese Army.
Bilateral relations also have been affected lately because of their dispute over a group of Korean-controlled islands between the two countries, which Japan also claims. They are called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
The dispute gained momentum after South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited one of the islets last August over strong Japanese protest. Lee, who will be succeeded by Park from his ruling party, also reportedly called for an apology from Emperor Akihito for Japan's colonial rule.
The Mainichi report said what particularly alarms South Korea is the LDP manifesto promising to observe Feb. 22 as a day to celebrate Japan's sovereignty over the Takeshima islets. The event would fall three days ahead of Park's swearing-in.
"If the Japanese government goes ahead with (Takeshima Day) events, it would be very hard to invite the Japanese prime minister to the inauguration," the Korean government source was quoted as saying.
Another South Korean official told Mainichi: "How the Japanese government treats Takeshima Day will be a litmus test" of Japanese intentions.
The report said there are those in Japan who do not want to inflame the Takeshima issue just before Park's inauguration.
The report noted that former Japanese and South Korean leaders have held talks during February which included Lee's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in 2008.
"For the Japanese prime minister to attend Ms. Park's inauguration would be a good chance to hit the reset button" on bilateral relations, a South Korean university professor told the Mainichi. However, Park had been quoted as telling journalists last month that she would strengthen South Korea's position on Takeshima and the comfort women issues, while also saying: "Japan is an important friend, and bilateral cooperation is extremely important."
She had also said: "Japan and South Korea are among the many nations with aging societies, and both need new growth drivers."
But a Japanese government official told the newspaper: "Ms. Park will almost certainly demand quite strongly that Japan respond to the comfort women issue. It's possible that the United States, with its focus on human rights, will back her up, too."
The report, however, said there is a conciliatory mood currently which includes effort to restart ministerial-level meetings between the two countries. Japan also has already moved to use Japan-South Korea-China free trade talks into better relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
The report said the Japanese government is also being cautious about taking its Takeshima issue to the International Court of Justice it had asserted earlier.
North Korea is another issue of common concern t the two countries because of its proximity and its missile and nuclear weapons program.
"The peace and stability of East Asia is equally important to both Japan and South Korea," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official told the Mainichi. "The new South Korean administration will not break from the current path of close cooperation with the United States and Japan."