Even before he becomes prime minister next week, Shinzo Abe has sought to improve ties with Seoul by naming a special envoy for talks and shelving plans for a potentially divisive commemoration centering on a group of isles held by South Korea.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Dec. 16 Lower House election with a platform that included a pledge to have the central government host a celebratory event Feb. 22, which is known as "Takeshima Day" by the Shimane prefectural government.
Japan argues the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan are Japanese territory and fall within the administration of Shimane Prefecture.
However, on Dec. 21, Abe indicated that the central government would not hold such an event in 2013. Furthermore, he said he was sending an envoy with a personal message for President-elect Park Geun-hye after her Dec. 19 election victory.
"I have great expectations for the first female president," Abe told reporters on Dec. 21 in Tokyo. "I want to improve relations between Japan and South Korea, so I am having (Fukushiro) Nukaga visit South Korea with a letter from me."
The letter would stress the importance of the bilateral relationship and call on Park for a meeting as soon as possible.
Nukaga is secretary-general of a cross-border contact group of members of the Japanese and South Korean parliaments.
Initially, he was to have departed for Seoul on Dec. 21, but no meeting with Park could be arranged. Therefore, his visit is now expected to take place after Dec. 26, the day that the Diet confirms Abe as prime minister and he establishes his Cabinet.
This means the letter can be signed by "Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister" rather than merely "LDP President."
At a Dec. 21 news conference in Yamaguchi in western Japan, Abe addressed the question of whether he would follow through on his campaign pledge to make the central government observe "Takeshima Day."
"I want to make a comprehensive judgment in the future, on whether the central government should host such an event," he said.
On the same day, Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP secretary-general, indicated at a separate news conference that the central government would likely skip the event in 2013.
"A judgment must consider the broader context of how to improve national security in Northeast Asia," Ishiba said.
South Korean officials expressed relief at the various steps Abe has taken so far, as he has long been thought to advocate a hawkish foreign policy.
They considered the "Takeshima Day" problem to be the most immediate thorn in bilateral ties.
On Dec. 21, a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded favorably to reports that Japan would postpone the event.
"It would be very desirable if it's true," the official said.
Meanwhile, South Korean media reported on Abe's moves, too.
"The main foreign-policy and national security tasks for the Abe administration will be strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as ties with China," the Yonhap News Agency said in a commentary.
"In an attempt to improve ties with South Korea, Japan seems to have judged it necessary to push the Dokdo question to the back burner," the commentary continued. Dokdo is the name South Korea uses for the Takeshima islets.
The report additionally said there was a high likelihood that Abe would attend Park's inauguration, which is scheduled for Feb. 25.
While campaigning, Abe took a strong stand on territorial disputes. However, he has served as prime minster once before—and back then he proved to be more of a pragmatist in setting actual policy.
One campaign speech saw Abe declaring: "The leaders of South Korea and Russia have landed on both Takeshima and the Northern Territories. Japan is being taken lightly!"
However, after becoming prime minister in the autumn of 2006 the nation he chose to visit first was China.
In the meeting he had with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Abe attempted to improve ties and spoke of "a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests." Relations had worsened under his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, because of Koizumi's frequent visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japanese war-dead along with 14 Class-A war criminals.
Just days before he returns to the post of prime minister, Abe is once again looking the pragmatist.
"There is a need for an approach that thinks about strategy while holding a broad view of the world map," he said at a Dec. 17 news conference.
Abe is likely hoping to use improved ties with Seoul as a stepping stone toward repairing the relationship with Beijing.
A diplomatic standoff continues with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Tensions also remain high with North Korea, which this month launched a missile that flew over southern Japan.
If the Abe administration were to continue facing off with South Korea amid other such taxing international problems, it would make little headway in its East Asian diplomacy.
Moreover, the LDP's landslide election victory was only in the Lower House. In the Upper House, it still lacks a majority—even when seats held by coalition partner New Komeito are taken into account.
That forces the party to emphasize economic policy in the run-up to next summer's Upper House election.
"Until the Upper House election, the focus will be on the economy," said one LDP executive.
But despite his more pragmatic approach, Abe has not softened his underlying position that both Takeshima and the Senkakus are Japanese territory.
"Our territory and territorial waters are being threatened," he said. "We have to establish once again a strong diplomacy."
For that reason, South Korean officials remain alert.
"We want to pay careful attention to the situation for a while longer," one high-ranking South Korean government official said.
A source in the Park camp added: "In the current situation, merely thinking only about territory and historical issues is unrealistic. We trust that Abe will make wise decisions."
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