By Troy Stangarone
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo recently signaled that he may remain in Japan rather than attend the opening ceremony for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. While Prime Minister Abe could still decide to attend the Games with the Diet signaling a willingness to change its schedule to allow his attendance, it would be a lost opportunity for Japan if he does not.
The Games in PyeongChang kick off a series of three consecutive Olympics in Northeast Asia. After the Games in PyeongChang, Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Games and Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Since the fall, South Korea has pushed for the leaders of Northeast Asia to attend the Games.
If Prime Minister Abe decides to attend the Games, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. When Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympic Games Prime Minster Takeshita Noboru attended and when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made reciprocal visits.
Attending the opening ceremony wouldn’t be unprecedented for Prime Minister Abe either. In 2014, he attend the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics as part of an effort to continue improving ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the hopes of concluding a peace treaty to formally end World War II between the two nations. It was also hoped that a resolution could be reached over the return of some of the Japanese islands occupied by the then Soviet Union at the end of the war.
Attending the opening ceremony in PyeongChang would be different. A South Korean task force recently concluded that the agreement reached between Prime Minister Abe and the government of former President Park Geun-hye did not take into account the wishes of the Comfort Women. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stated that he will honor the agreement, he has also suggested that Japan should take additional measures, something which Japan has declined to do.
Prime Minister Abe would undoubtedly face questions about his government’s position on the Comfort Women, but the upside of the attending the Games should be enough to encourage him to attend. At the same time, not attending will do nothing to help solve the Comfort Women issue or any other bilateral problem.
Despite the recent thaw from the Olympics, the crisis with North Korea will likely intensify this year, necessitating continued close cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. With North Korea scoring PR points by agreeing to attend the PyeongChang Games, Prime Minister Abe’s absence would be even more conspicuous.
South Korea has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Games as part of the hand off to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. It is unclear if President Xi will attend, but he is unlikely to match the impression left by Prime Minister Abe at the Rio Olympics when the organizers handed off to the Tokyo Games and Prime Minister Abe emerged as Super Mario as part of the ceremony.
If anything, Xi Jinping’s apparent reticence to attend should be an incentive for Prime Minister Abe to attend. Despite efforts on the part of the Moon Jae-in government, China still maintains aspects of its economic retaliation over the deployment of the Terminal High Area Altitude Defense (THAAD). If neither Xi or Abe attend, it will leave the impression that both are placing other disputes over the Olympic Games. At the same time, Prime Minister Abe should want to avoid an outcome where President Xi attended and he did not, while the image of Prime Minister Abe and President Moon at the Games would signal the importance both countries place on the relationship.
With Tokyo so close to South Korea, it should be an easy lift regardless of the Diet’s schedule. In the end, attending the PyeongChang Games would be a significant win for Japan. It would allow Prime Minister Abe to build support for the Tokyo Games, signal that Japan maintains close cooperation with South Korea at a critical time, and blunt some of the North Korea’s PR offensive. Not every Olympics offers that kind of opportunities.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Herman Van Rompuy’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.