New leaders mute on Japan-Korea relations

December 20, 2012

The ASAHI SHIMBUN

The new leaders of Japan and South Korea appear to be in no great rush to ease strains in bilateral relations, judging by their comparative silence on the subject in their election campaigns.

However, aides to Park Geun-hye, whom voters elected Dec. 19 as South Korea's first female president, have expressed concern about the perception of history held by Shinzo Abe, Japan's next prime minister, who takes office next week. His Liberal Democratic Party won a Lower House election on Dec. 16.

The South Korean presidential contest was so tight the Park camp had little time to hammer out a comprehensive diplomatic strategy.

But an aide in charge of foreign affairs expressed reservations about the LDP's own election platform, which contained measures relating to the disputed Takeshima islets, and referred to the so-called comfort women issue, which relates to Koreans and others forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers during the wartime era.

"We were extremely surprised," the aide said.

Of particular concern was the pledge in the LDP platform to have the central government host an event on Feb. 22, which the Shimane prefectural government has designated as "Takeshima Day," the Japanese name for the islets. South Korea administers them, calling them Dokdo.

The South Korean presidential inauguration is scheduled for Feb. 25. At the last two inauguration ceremonies, contemporary prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Yasuo Fukuda attended and used the occasion to hold their first meetings with the new leader.

However, if the central government proceeds as planned with the Feb. 22 event, it would be extremely difficult for the South Korean government to invite Abe to attend the inauguration three days later.

At the same time, some in the Park camp expect Abe to seek better bilateral ties.

When the LDP released its campaign platform, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade made no significant protest.

"Japan is an important nation capable of fulfilling a major role in Northeast Asia and the international community," a ministry spokesperson said Dec. 18.

"In order to fulfill that role, it is important to have trust between nations and their peoples. We hope the new government will make contributions based on this."

Regardless of his official party platform, Abe himself said little about South Korean relations while campaigning.

Bilateral relations nosedived after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Takeshima islets in August. He said he did it mainly because of inaction on the "comfort women" issue by the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

During Abe's first stint as prime minister, his Cabinet approved a text declaring that there was no documentary evidence of the forcible recruitment of foreign women.

Moreover, Abe's comments on the matter led to criticism about his human rights views from not only South Korea but also the United States. Abe apologized for his comments to U.S. President George W. Bush.

During a debate between party leaders in late November, Abe touched upon the difficulties of dealing with such a sensitive issue.

"Depending on how we respond, there is the unfortunate possibility of a diplomatic issue emerging regardless of the truth of the matter," Abe said.

Cooperation from South Korea will be vital in resolving such issues as the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea and Pyongyang's nuclear weapon and missile development programs, problems which Abe has taken an interest in for years.

"With China too, now is not the time for a diplomatic struggle on two fronts" said a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official.

Abe sought a future-oriented relationship with South Korea during his term as prime minister. It is too early to judge whether he can pick up where he left off, with Park.

(This article was compiled from reports by Tetsuya Hakoda in Seoul and staff writers in Tokyo.)

The ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye meet in March 2006. Next week, Abe will become prime minister for a second time, and in February, Park will be inaugurated as South Korean president (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye meet in March 2006. Next week, Abe will become prime minister for a second time, and in February, Park will be inaugurated as South Korean president (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye meet in March 2006. Next week, Abe will become prime minister for a second time, and in February, Park will be inaugurated as South Korean president (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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