A special envoy sent by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday expressed hopes for better bilateral relations ahead of a meeting with President-elect Park Geun-hye.
A delegation led by former Japanese Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, which delivered a letter from Abe as well as his message underscoring the importance of the relationship, came amid concerns here that a conservative turn in Japan could further hamper ties.
Before departing from Haneda Airport, Nukaga was quoted as saying he wanted to play a bridging role for the two countries to build better relations this year.
"Prime Minister Abe believes that Japan-South Korea ties need to be solid for the stability of East Asia," he said.
Jitters over Tokyo's foreign policy stem from pledges made during Abe's campaign including nullifying a 1993 statement apologizing for Tokyo's wartime atrocities and establishing a day symbolizing Tokyo's claim over the Seoul-controlled Dokdo Islets.
Friday's meeting between Park and the Japanese delegation was not expected to broach touchy issues but rather set the stage for an improvement in ties after Feb 25, when Park enters Cheong Wa Dae. The delegation also included two lawmakers of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho.
Park says Dokdo is not a matter to be negotiated and has called on the island state to face up to its history.
Meanwhile, in a sign that Korea may want to find a way out of the current impasse, ruling and opposition lawmakers will visit Japan next Tuesday at the invitation of the Korean Residents Union in Japan.
Following her election on Dec. 19, Park held a phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama in a sign of her intent to strengthen the traditional alliance. Abe offered to send Nukaga at the time but Park asked for a delay, citing difficulties in scheduling.
Last year, the countries went from being close to signing an intelligence sharing pact, pushed by Washington, to another tit-for-tat over Dokdo. The pact fell through amid heavy opposition in Korea; while the flare-up over Dokdo came after a surprise visit to the rocky outcrops by President Lee Myung-bak.
It remains to be seen whether Tokyo, facing a turn to the right brought on by economic woes and a territorial row with China, will reflect nationalist sentiment in its foreign policy. Some scholars say Abe may have capitalized on the electoral values of the conservative turn, but may be wary of exhausting more energy on thorny issues with neighbors.
While the countries share robust trade relations, political ties are held back by numerous issues stemming from Japan's colonization of the peninsula from 1910-1945. The disagreements are seen as a hurdle to deeper economic ties and the fostering of a regional community.