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[News Analysis] No drastic change in Seoul-Tokyo ties expected under new PM Suga

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reacts after he was elected as new head of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the party's leadership election in Tokyo on Monday. (AFP-Yonhap)
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reacts after he was elected as new head of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party at the party's leadership election in Tokyo on Monday. (AFP-Yonhap)

Japan will see Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga sworn in as the country’s new leader Wednesday, but no major changes are expected in its soured relations with South Korea in the near future as Suga is expected to mostly carry forward the foreign policy of outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, analysts said Tuesday.

Suga, Abe’s longtime right-hand man, was chosen as head of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic party Monday, making it all but certain that he will become Japan’s next prime minister after an election in the LDP-controlled parliament.

The 71-year-old will succeed Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, who abruptly announced his resignation last month because of poor health. Suga will initially serve the remaining year of Abe’s term in office until next September.

His tenure arrives at a time when rancorous diplomatic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo over wartime history and trade see no signs of abating. The two neighboring countries’ efforts to tackle mutual challenges, including the COVID-19 response, the nuclear threat from North Korea and US-China rivalry are seen as unlikely to make much headway.

While some have expressed optimism that the exit of the hawkish Abe might revitalize Seoul-Tokyo relations, which have deteriorated under Abe’s watch, many experts believe Suga, who played a key role in the Abe administration as the government spokesperson, will adhere to his predecessor’s policies.

Though Suga hasn’t revealed his policy direction in detail, he said “continuity is what’s important in diplomacy” when asked how closely he plans to follow Abe’s foreign policy. He added that he would consult with Abe on foreign policy. In signs of continuity, Suga is set to reappoint Taro Aso as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister and Toshimitsu Motegi as foreign minister when he forms his Cabinet this week, according to Japanese media outlets.

“It will be hard to see a drastic change in Japan’s position toward South Korea, as Suga vowed to continue with Abe’s policies,” Choi Eun-mi, a Japan expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told The Korea Herald. “For Suga, proving his legitimacy as the new prime minister will be critical. Within Japan’s political dynamics, he cannot ignore LDP factions that supported him in the election. This means it is unlikely that he will voice a radical change in regards to Korea that goes against the mainstream LDP stance.”

In Monday’s election, Suga, who doesn’t belong to any faction, won by a large margin of 377 votes, or roughly 70 percent of the total 534 votes, garnering the support of five of the LDP’s seven major factions, many of which favor policy continuity.

“Suga is not Abe, but Japan’s bottom-line on history issues is more entrenched than whoever leads the LDP,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Lee Won-deok, an expert on Japan at Kookmin University in Seoul, echoed a similar stance, saying it would be hard to expect a fundamental shift in relations as mutual resentment between the two countries runs deep and goes beyond whoever takes the top job.

But considering that Suga and Abe are two different people, there could be momentum for change, he said.

Abe was a leader with a strong persona, Lee explained, an ideologically-driven politician with a far-right stance, whereas Suga is more of a “realist” whose motives would be interest and popularity.

“This means if Seoul has a strong willingness to improve ties, there will be more diplomatic space for Seoul to work around,” he said. “While Japan does not openly admit it, it is apparent that Japan’s export curbs are retribution for a Seoul court’s ruling on forced labor. If Seoul could come up with a more flexible approach on the forced labor issue and in regards to liquidating Japanese firm’s assets, Japan could ease the export controls.”

Seoul and Tokyo have remained divided over history for decades, rooted in a dispute over Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910-1945. But the conflict reached a new level of acrimony after South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that Japanese firms must compensate the Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II. The decision drew a strong rebuke from Tokyo, which claims related issues were settled under the 1965 agreement.

In apparent retaliation for Seoul’s verdict, Japan slapped export controls on chemicals vital to the Korean semiconductor industry last year, and hasn’t entirely lifted them. With no response from Tokyo about financial reparations, a South Korean court in August began the liquidation process on a Japanese firm to compensate the victims, which could risk aggravating the already fragile ties further.

Despite deteriorated relations, experts hope for resuming stalled talks between Seoul and Tokyo, with some anticipation that the planned trilateral summit between China, Japan and Korea scheduled for November could make a breakthrough.

“If South Korean President Moon Jae-in is willing to improve relations with Japan, the summit between the two countries could serve as a momentum,” said Lee. 

Last December, Tokyo partially lifted its curbs on exports of photoresists to South Korea, one of three materials it had severely restricted since last year, in an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of their summit.

Easley, however, stressed that it’s up to Seoul to come up with ways to improve relations before the summit, as Suga will be “Mr. Continuity” until he leads the LDP into a legislative election.

“He may then promise policy adjustments, and after securing a public mandate, pursue new initiatives,” he said, adding that those will likely focus on the pandemic response and an economic recovery. “A push on foreign policy will probably wait until after the US election. So Seoul has time to prepare for improving relations, possibly when Suga visits South Korea for a trilateral summit with China.”

He added Seoul can get Tokyo to remove the trade curbs if the Moon administration takes responsibility for addressing the Supreme Court rulings within the 1965 framework. “However, if South Korea liquidates Japanese corporate assets or fails to hold Youn Mee-hyang accountable for financial scandals related to the obstruction of reconciliation between ‘comfort women’ survivors and Japan, bilateral relations would deteriorate further,” he said.

Another major question is just how long Suga will stay at the helm, and it will boil down to what Suga’s political ambition is, whether he will keep the status quo as a “caretaker” leader until his term ends next September, or proceed with pushing a new agenda.

“Considering Suga’s relatively minor footing within the LDP and that he was practically designated by Abe, he could be motivated to make a political calculation to produce considerable diplomatic outcome during his term to tighten his power grip,” said Lee. “Making a breakthrough in Seoul-Tokyo ties could be one of the achievements.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (
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