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The Peninsula

Leadership Election in Japan Unlikely to Change Relations with Korea

Published September 27, 2021
Category: South Korea

This week, the winner of the Liberal Democratic Party leadership election will take the premiership, because the party controls the National Diet. But no matter who wins the election, experts say the deep freeze in Korea-Japan relations are unlikely to change. Based on statements made by the candidates, it seems that there is a dearth of interest in the Japanese establishment.

Four members of the LDP will stand in the election to succeed current Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. The first person to announce their candidacy was Kishida Fumio, who stood in the last leadership election. He is fending off the popular Kōno Tarō, a popular member who currently holds a portfolio that includes vaccinating the population for Covid-19. Takaichi Sanae, a strident conservative has also thrown her hat in the ring, as has Noda Seiko.

Of the four candidates, two have a history of dealing with Korea because they led the foreign ministry. Mr. Kishida served as foreign minister during the Abe administration from 2012 to 2017. During his tenure, Japan and Korea negotiated the 2015 comfort women agreement. In 2017, he was succeeded in his post by Mr. Kōno, would also lead the Ministry of Defense from 2019 to 2020. Bilateral relations between Tokyo and Seoul froze under his tenure, amid various incidents like the removal of Korea from the white list of safe trading companies and other events.

Despite not having significant experience in foreign policy, Ms. Takaichi would probably not be welcomed by the Korean leadership. As a Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, she made headlines in 2014 for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Unlike her rivals, she has not shown any compunction for paying respects at a place where Class A war criminals are enshrined. “Visiting the shrine should not be a diplomatic issue,” she said in an interview with the conservative Yomiuri Newspaper. “Every country should show respect for the citizens of other nations who sacrificed their lives for their country.”

Thus, it is difficult to say which prospective Japanese leader would be best positioned to repair relations with Korea. Mr. Kōno has maintained cordial relations with former prime ministers Abe Shinzō and Asō Tarō, despite his father being the person who issued the Kōno Statement that acknowledged the existence of comfort women and the involvement of the Imperial Japanese government and army. “The Kōno Statement on comfort women remains the sort of bête noire for the Japanese right,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer at Stanford University. “There is actually, I think, some suspicion even within those camps – the Aso and Abe camps – that Kōno is not controllable in this regard.”

While the comfort women agreement negotiated under Kishida was a breakthrough, it has a mixed record in Korea, to say the least. “We have to remember that many Korean progressives were upset about the agreement, which at the time was signed between the Abe and now disgraced Park Geun-hye government,” said Dr. Andrew Yeo, Professor of Politics, Catholic University and Korea Chair and Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution. Additionally, Mr. Kishida will have to deal with more conservative elements in the party. Tobias Harris, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress observes that a Kishida victory would be “thanks to critical support from the right.” He added: “I think that is going to make it much harder for him to deviate on South Korea.”

Perhaps most ominous for Japan-Korea relations would be a government led by Ms. Takaichi. Political observers note that she does not have the same kind of pragmatism as Mr. Abe, who visited the shrine just once in 2013. He also made a rather pointed visit to Korea and China during his first run as prime minister in 2006, which came after another deterioration of Japan’s relations with its neighbors. “[Abe has] always, I think, tried to find a balance between pursuing political ideals, and recognizing political reality and the limits of the possible,” said Mr. Harris. “Takaichi is not sending those signs, at all,” he added. “At some point…people are who they say they are.”

Although each candidate has put forward their own policy proposals, experts say the larger negative dynamic between Korea and Japan is not likely to change soon. “I don’t see like a dramatic change in attitude toward South Korea, given the lineup that we see in the LDP race right now,” said Dr. Naoko Aoki of the University of Maryland in a recent KEI webinar. On the campaign trail, the candidates have focused more attention on domestic concerns. Foreign policy issues have largely focused more on addressing the threat posed by China. “What’s interesting is, I think, how little Korea has figured in the foreign policy discussion at all,” said Mr. Harris. He says this reflects the larger Japanese consensus that there is little to be gained from engaging with Korea. “That suggests that there’s going to be limited opportunity for bilateral engagement and improvement between Tokyo and Seoul,” he added.

But even if the Moon government wanted to pursue a reset with Japan, he will only be in power until March of next year. “In some ways, the more difficult question, to be honest, is on the Korean side,” said Mr. Sneider. It remains to be seen who will step up to succeed President Moon Jae-in, from either side of the political spectrum. Mr. Sneider said that while the conventional wisdom is that a conservative presidency would find it easier to work with Japan, that is not a foregone conclusion. “Even on the progressive side, a lot depends on who the candidate is,” he added. “There’s greater uncertainty to me on the Korean side than there is on the Japanese side.”

A new premier in Japan does represent an opportunity to reinvigorate bilateral relations between Korea and Japan. “Any new leadership change should be taken as an opportunity to mend the relationship,” said Riley Walters, deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Hudson Institute. Based on conversations with diplomats in Washington from both Tokyo and Seoul, “I think there’s a lot of interest in working to mend this relationship,” he said.

But it will have to come with political leadership on both sides that is serious about addressing the obstacles in the bilateral relationship. “It’s going to take a lot of small efforts to start building that trust and relationship back,” said Mr. Walters. “I’d like to think that with the new administration, or with both new administrations, there could be time taken to consider these things.”

They will also need to be more open minded about engaging with the other side. “If you only focus on the most visible expressions of hardline views in both places – on the left in Korea, and on the right in Japan – you miss the opportunity to engage those societies,” said Mr. Sneider. “It’s important to engage the entirety of a society, and not to overreact to one individual statement here or there.”

Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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