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Post-Suga, no dramatic shift in Seoul-Tokyo relations expected

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will likely maintain adamant stance on Korea no matter who takes the top job.

Flags of Japan and South Korea (123rf)
Flags of Japan and South Korea (123rf)

The Japanese government is set for a leadership change, but a dramatic turnaround in Seoul-Tokyo relations is unlikely, experts say.

In the wake of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s abrupt decision to step down last Friday, many here are wondering what the new Japanese leadership will mean for South Korea as an array of candidates vies to succeed Suga at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party leadership election, set for Sept. 29.

The new LDP president is effectively assured of becoming the next prime minister, as the LDP holds a parliamentary majority.

So far, Fumio Kishida, the former foreign minister under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has already thrown his hat in the ring, while several others, including Taro Kono, the popular minister in charge of COVID-19 vaccination, and Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs minister who is backed by Abe, are looking to join the heated race.

A new leader could mean a fresh foreign policy perspective from Tokyo. But when it comes to Seoul-Tokyo ties, analysts here are pessimistic. They view a dramatic shift in bilateral relations as unlikely and say the LDP’s stance on Korea won’t change no matter who takes the top job.

“The Seoul-Tokyo issue is not Japan’s top priority for the new administration, which has to deal with domestic issues and the economy,” said Choi Eun-mi, a Japan expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“Especially with the upcoming presidential election in South Korea, it is hard to expect any drastic change in Seoul-Tokyo relations in the near term.”

Resolving the historical issues at the center of the feud -- including wartime sexual slavery and forced labor -- will be difficult, she said, as the new leader will not go against the public’s expectation of a hawkish position toward Seoul. 

“But at the very least, there could be some improvement in areas of resuming bilateral exchange that was ceased due to the COVID-19 situation, as well as in trade,” said Choi.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, echoed a similar view, saying Tokyo’s stance on historical issues will remain unchanged despite apparent generational changes in Japanese politics.

“Generational change in the ruling LDP could produce forward-leaning policies, including better valuing Seoul as a partner. But while the LDP maintains power, Tokyo’s stance on history issues is unlikely to change until Korea domestically resolves conflicting court rulings,” said Easley. “The challenge for Japan’s next prime minister isn’t about being conciliatory, it’s about not appearing weak.”

Seoul-Tokyo ties have deteriorated further under Suga since he took office last September after his predecessor Abe resigned due to health problems. 

During Suga’s tenure, Korean President Moon Jae-in has been seeking to mend ties with Tokyo. But no significant progress has been made as the neighbors still remain miles apart on key historical matters, including compensation for wartime forced laborers and sexual slavery victims, coupled with Tokyo’s recent decision to discharge radioactive wastewater from the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.

Japan continues to insist that all wartime issues were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations. It also asserts that the 2015 agreement on “comfort women” resolved the matter of sexual slavery “finally and irreversibly.”

But many in Korea believe Japan has not taken adequate responsibility for its colonial atrocities. As a result, victims, while demanding a sincere apology from Japan, have also sought justice in court.

In 2018, Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese firms must compensate the Korean victims who were forced to work in their factories during World War II. In apparent retaliation, Japan in 2019 slapped export controls on chemicals vital to the Korean semiconductor industry, and hasn’t entirely lifted them.

With a Seoul court moving to seize assets held by a Japanese company here so that compensation can be provided to plaintiffs, there are fears that the already fragile relations between the two countries could worsen.

For Moon, time is not on his side as his single five-year term ends next May. Moon’s last-minute decision to not visit Japan for the Tokyo Olympics in July dashed hopes of a breakthrough.

Analysts say until Seoul picks a new president in March, Japan will focus on maintaining the status quo and will not be inclined to shift its tone first.

“The newly elected president is the face of the LDP that has to carry the party into the general election later this year, as well as an upper house election next July,” said Jin Chang-soo, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Sejong Institute. “Japan will focus on managing the administration for the time being, and less inclined to take forward-looking steps with South Korea.”

In the upcoming LDP election, Kono and Kishida are regarded as the two leading candidates. They have both served as foreign ministers in the hawkish Abe administration and are likely to maintain a tough stance against Seoul.

“The two will most likely stress that South Korea needs to keep its promises first, and unlikely to budge first,” said Jin. “Then it will be largely be up to Seoul to come up with a new solution. This will be unlikely during the current Moon government, but could be possible when the administration changes.”


By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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