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Abe victory lifts hopes for better relations

Sept 20,2006
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party yesterday, making it certain that he will be Japan’s next prime minister when the Diet reconvenes Tuesday.
In Seoul, the election spurred additional hopes of better relations with Tokyo. Ties between the neighbors, never close, had been further strained by the visits to a controversial war memorial by the incumbent prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.
“As the new administration is launched in Japan, Seoul hopes that the two countries’ conflicts will be resolved and the relationship will be developed into a future-orientated friendship,” said Lee Kyu-hyung, Korea’s vice foreign minister.
Calling Japan “a partner and precious neighbor in building peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia,” Mr. Lee urged Tokyo to show a “sincere attitude” in mending the diplomatic rupture between the two nations that has festered over competing territorial claims, Japan’s World War II history and a stirring in Japan for constitutional changes that Koreans fear could presage a militaristic revival.
Mr. Abe won 464 out of 703 votes at yesterday’s election among his party’s legislators; his victory had been widely expected.
After the balloting, Mr. Abe said “I will uphold the fire of ideals and the torch of reform as the first prime minister born in the post-war era.” He was born in 1954 and will be Japan’s 90th prime minister. He has pledged to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, imposed by the United States after Japan’s surrender to end World War II. He has promised to improve already strong ties with Washington and to mend diplomatic ruptures with Beijing and Seoul.
Mr. Abe, a conservative, is also well known for his tough stance toward Pyongyang. He became interested in the issue of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea in 1988 and began investigating the kidnappings when he was first elected to the Diet in 1993. After a decade of effort by Tokyo, Pyongyang admitted to the kidnappings in 2002, and Mr. Abe rocketed into political prominence.
Kim Tae-hyo, a political scientist at Sungkyunkwan University, said Mr. Abe’s election would probably not lead to dramatic changes in the region’s affairs. “Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe share the same principles,” he said, “but they differ a bit in political styles, particularly in diplomacy. Mr. Koizumi confronted China and South Korea, but Mr. Abe said he would restrain nationalistic diplomacy.”
Mr. Kim also dismissed speculations that Mr. Abe’s hard-line policy toward Pyongyang would increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula. “Japan announced more sanctions against the North in recent days because that is the trend in the international community,” Mr. Kim said. “Japan is following the U.S.-led international efforts to put pressure on the North.” He also said Mr. Abe’s pledge to rewrite the peace constitution was unlikely to be honored within his term because he does not have the two-thirds majority in the Diet to make such changes.
Yun Deok-min, a Japan specialist at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, also agreed that Mr. Abe’s election would be an opportunity for Beijing and Seoul to improve their ties with Tokyo.
“China has already begun preparations to restore ties with Japan,” he said, “and Tokyo is very much willing to do so. I hope that will be the case for South Korea, too.”


by Ser Myo-ja


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