Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s planned departure from office is raising hopes that the strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo might at last begin to see some improvement.
Days after becoming Japan’s longest-serving premier last week, Abe announced his intent to step down due to a chronic illness, saying he will stay in the post until his successor is chosen, probably within September.
During his current tenure, which began in 2012, Seoul-Tokyo ties have reached a low ebb over issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Discord over long-simmering issues such as wartime sexual slavery and forced labor has continued to deepen, with Abe’s conservative government refusing to accede to the calls of South Korean victims for a meaningful apology and formal reparations.
Throughout his stint as prime minister, Abe has taken a harder stance on Seoul than any of his predecessors. Some observers accuse him of seeking to amplify anti-Korean sentiment in Japan for his own political gain.
In 2016, Abe said he would not consider sending a letter of apology to the Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
In 2019, he pressed Tokyo’s trade officials to impose curbs on the export of high-tech materials to Korea in what appeared to be a politically motivated reprisal for two rulings by the Supreme Court here in 2018, ordering Japanese firms to compensate Koreans forced to work in their plants and mines during the colonial era. Later, Japan dropped Korea from its list of preferential trading partners.
Seoul responded by filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization over the export restrictions.
It also vowed not to renew its military intelligence-sharing accord with Tokyo, though it shelved the pledge at the last minute due to opposition from the US, which sees the pact as a crucial tool to enhance trilateral security cooperation with its two key Asian allies. But the administration of Korean President Moon Jae-in has left open the possibility of scrapping the military accord.
Also in 2019, Abe refused to hold a bilateral meeting with Moon when he hosted the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. Yet he made time for one-on-one talks with the leaders of all other major member states on the sidelines of the multilateral summit.
Abe’s departure can hardly be expected to have an immediate and significant impact on the frayed ties between Seoul and Tokyo, given that whoever succeeds him will likely follow his policy line.
Still, there is the possibility that the new Japanese administration may relax measures driven mainly by Abe’s personal will -- such as the export curbs, which have been criticized for damaging the economies of both countries.
If Seoul responds to any such positive move from Tokyo by taking a more forward-looking approach to historical issues, bilateral ties could finally move beyond their worst level since they were normalized in 1965.
In a statement issued after Abe’s announcement that he planned to resign, the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae said Korea will continue to cooperate with Abe’s successor to promote friendly bilateral ties, while wishing Abe a quick recovery from his illness.
Seoul needs to make the best use of this chance to forge better ties with Tokyo upon Abe’s departure.
The Moon government is not above criticism either, having itself attempted to amplify anti-Japanese sentiment here to bolster its domestic position.
It has done little to ease the conflict with Tokyo since the rulings on forced labor, repeatedly saying the court judgments should be respected. With the next presidential election less than two years away, it may be tempting to adhere to that position and continue to use anti-Japanese rhetoric in a bid to rally voter support.
The Moon administration and the incoming Japanese Cabinet should not let ties between Korea and Japan be strained further at a time when the two countries need to pursue closer cooperation to cope with the coronavirus pandemic and ensure regional stability.
The wider public in both nations should not be swayed by political attempts to stir up negative sentiment against the other side, but instead should strengthen efforts at various levels to help put bilateral relations back on track.