S. Korea-Japan relations unlikely to undergo dramatic change under new administration

Posted on : 2020-09-17 16:15 KST Modified on : 2020-09-17 16:15 KST
Japanese Diet votes in Yoshihide Suga as next prime minister
The National Diet of Japan votes to make Yoshihide Suga the next prime minister on Sept. 16. (AP/Yonhap News)
The National Diet of Japan votes to make Yoshihide Suga the next prime minister on Sept. 16. (AP/Yonhap News)

On Sept. 16, Yoshihide Suga became Japan’s 99th prime minister. The Blue House responded by saying it’s ready for dialogue and that it hopes Japan is as well, signaling its strong determination to improve bilateral relations, which deteriorated during the premiership of Shinzo Abe.

Suga defeated Yukio Edano, head of the Constitutional Democratic Party, by a large margin in a vote in Japan’s Diet on Wednesday. After Suga and the members of his cabinet received their credentials in a meeting with the Japanese emperor, Suga officially declared the cabinet’s inauguration in a press conference at the prime minister’s residence at 9 pm.

The new cabinet members announced on Wednesday reinforce Suga’s promise to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Katsunobu Kato, regarded as one of Abe’s closest confidantes, was appointed chief cabinet secretary, a role in which he will guide the affairs of state alongside Suga; Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, was appointed minister of defense. Two key figures who will continue in their current posts are Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, who held that position for seven years and eight months under Abe. In short, eight of 20 cabinet members are holdovers from the Abe cabinet, and 15 of them spent time on the Abe cabinet.

Given Suga’s focus on upholding Abe’s cabinet’s policies, there are unlikely to be major changes, at least in the short term, in South Korea-Japan relations. Under Abe, Suga called on South Korea to “take responsibility and offer a solution” for the issue of compensating Korean victims of forced labor during the Japanese imperial era, the biggest issue currently affecting bilateral relations. During an interview with Japanese newspaper the Sankei Shimbun on Sept. 5, Suga expressed his viewpoint that a 1965 agreement in which South Korea and Japan settled the right to make claims represents the foundation of their bilateral relations.

But since Suga has distanced himself from the historical revisionism that was a personal crusade for Abe, who sought to overcome what he saw as Japan’s masochistic attitude toward history, Suga is unlikely to inflame tensions with South Korea through inappropriate remarks about historical controversies. Suga staunchly opposed the idea of Abe paying his respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine (where known war criminals are enshrined) in December 2013; when his objections were dismissed, he called Lee Byeong-gi, South Korea’s ambassador to Japan at the time, to give him advance notice of the visit.

If trilateral summit held with China, Moon likely to meet Suga for first time there

One factor that will set the tone for South Korea-Japan relations moving forward is the question of whether the two countries will move ahead with a trilateral summit with China that South Korea is supposed to host this year. Following a visit to South Korea by Yang Jiechi, China’s state councilor in charge of foreign affairs, on Aug. 22, the Blue House said that South Korea and China had “also discussed the need to hold a trilateral summit with Japan before the end of the year.” If Japan consents — presuming that South Korea can keep its COVID-19 outbreak under control — it would naturally lead to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s first face-to-face meeting with Suga. In such a meeting, the two leaders would likely reconfirm their basic stance of resolving issues quickly, through dialogue, a stance that Moon and Abe confirmed in December 2019.

On Wednesday afternoon, Moon sent a letter to Suga congratulating him on his inauguration and expressing his firm determination to improve the two countries’ relations. Blue House Spokesperson Kang Min-seok told reporters about the letter, in which he said that Moon had “expressed his desire that the two countries would continue working together to further develop their relationship during Suga’s time as prime minister.”

“Our Japanese friends not only share our fundamental values and strategic interests but are also closest to us geographically and culturally. President Moon is ready to sit down with the Japanese government at any time for dialogue and communication, and we hope that the Japanese will be eager to engage,” Kang said.

By Gil Yun-hyung and Seong Yeon-cheol, staff reporters

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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