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New leadership needed to fix Japan–ROK relations

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, is led by a Shinto priest, right, after paying respect for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

In June, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and South Korean President Park Geun-hye put their differences aside just long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of normalisation of relations, albeit without meeting in separate ceremonies in Seoul and Tokyo. In doing so the two leaders played nice emphasizing the common interests of their two countries while mollifying historical disputes. Yet as the 70th anniversary of the end of Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula approaches on 15 August, can we really expect relations to keep improving? Probably not.


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Abe has been under little domestic pressure to improve bilateral relations. Before his re-election in December 2012, many Japanese were infuriated by a visit by then president Lee Myung-bak to the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islets. This event closely followed an Olympic soccer game during which a South Korean player displayed a slogan referencing the territorial dispute.

Opinion polls over the past three years show considerable animosity: 52.4 per cent of Japanese respondents had ‘unfavourable’ opinions of South Korea, largely due to the perception that South Koreans berate Japan over history. And 63 per cent of Japanese (and 73 per cent of young Japanese) feel the past is behind them.

Abe’s actions since taking office have exacerbated this situation. While Abe has visited numerous countries to bolster Japan’s standing as part of his global public relations bid, he has decided to forgo South Korea. This is despite the fact that he is even maintaining amicable relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite joining G7 efforts to sanction Russia.

Abe’s decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Decmber 2013 was unpopular among Japanese, condemned by China, South Korea and the United States, and even cost a bilateral summit with South Korea. But Abe willingly made these sacrifices since he was elected to end Japan’s economic malaise, not its historical disputes. As long as Japanese voters continued to believe Abe was the best option to reinvigorate the economy, there was little risk he would suffer from the visit.

Abenomics and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are perceived to have further diminished the importance of South Korea to Japan. Abenomics policies have led to the precipitous decline of the value of the Japanese yen against the won, improving Japanese industrial competitiveness, to the detriment of South Korean firms. As a result of near parity, South Korea and Japan have become more rivalrous than integrated, competing in the same sectors for the same price point overseas. While South Korea is Japan’s third largest trading partner at 7.8 per cent, following the United States and China, this may change as Japan’s relations improve with TPP members. TPP members will become preferred trading partners, decreasing the number of Japanese supply chains through South Korea. The Abe government tends to follow this line of thinking discussing South Korean relations predominately as a way to enhance to the US–Japan alliance rather than economic potential.

Park too is unlikely to focus on bilateral relations with Japan. Halfway through her term, Park’s public support rate is suffering: differences between electoral promises and actual governance; the tragedy of the Sewol Ferry disaster; allegations of intimidating news media; a bribery scandal causing her prime minister to resign; and criticisms of her handling of the MERS crisis have all combined to hit Park hard.

Park’s decreased popularity has also seen rival factions from within her own Saenuri, South Korea’s ruling party, challenge her publicly. In 2014 Kim Moo-sung was elected chairman of the party defeating Suh Chung-won, a close aide of Park. And in July Park forced the resignation of parliamentary floor leader Yoo Seong-min with whom she was known to have had a public feud. To avoid being a lame duck president, Park must bolster her popularity domestically.

While an improvement of Japan–South Korea disputes might improve her standing, only 5.1 per cent of South Koreans consider this a priority. More important to most South Koreans is improving relations with North Korea, the United States and China. Park has little impetus to take a proactive stance, especially since too soft a posture could draw parallels with her father’s affinity for Japan. To complicate the situation, for South Koreans, relations with Japan cannot be improved unless historical issues are resolved.

While the Japanese government has made a number of official apologies for its wartime actions, statements by officials that seem to contradict such apologies have undermined their credibility. In 2014 changes to Japanese textbooks to present ‘correct views’ of history and territory (that is, the position of the government) stirred controversy, as South Koreans felt Japan was attempting to ‘distort, minimise and omit historical facts’. This reinforced the perception among many South Koreans that Japan is militaristic. Abe’s desire to make education patriotic has only compounded this.

Much of the heat has been directed towards Abe. In the past he has called for revisions of the Kono statement, which apologised to ‘comfort women’ for abuse at the hands of the Japanese imperial military. More recently the Abe government conducted a review of the process by which the Kono Statement was issued, and Abe labelled comfort women victims of ‘human trafficking’ — thereby exonerating the wartime government from responsibility. Abe also has come under criticism for not explicitly apologising for Japan’s wartime actions during the first address of a Japanese leader to a joint session of the US Congress. As a result, 80.5 per cent of South Koreans dislike Abe — only marginally less than than those who dislike Kim Jong-un. Thus, much relies on whether or not Abe apologises for Japan’s past actions on the 70th anniversary.

What, then, should we expect on 15 August? South Koreans will be attentive to how Abe addresses the colonial era. Yet, as the political backlash to Abe’s new security bills — which aim to legalise the limited exercise of collective self-defence — has devastated his ratings, he is unlikely to further antagonise his constituency. With the loss of much of the agricultural vote — due to agricultural reforms and his support of the TPP, and his waning support among moderates, Abe more than ever needs the support of his base. His base happens to be more nationalistic than mainstream society and they would resent any concessions towards South Korea. At the same time, if Abe resorts to ‘personal’ apologies — or worse, disregards historical disputes altogether — this would further deteriorate relations. In light of the various political challenges, serious moves to repair Japan-ROK relations may not be in the offing until there is a change in leadership in both countries.

Trevor Kennedy is a MA Candidate in Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the University of British Columbia. Trevor writes on various policy related issues in Northeast Asia on his blog, Asia Pacific Policy and on Twitter.

Maël ‘Alan’ van Beek is a MA Candidate in International Studies at Seoul National University. Alan co-founded Korea and the World, a podcast that interviews experts on Korean political, economic and societal issues.



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