[VIEWPOINT]It’s time to mend fences with Japan

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[VIEWPOINT]It’s time to mend fences with Japan

The Japanese government, led by new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was inaugurated yesterday. As expected, important posts of the Liberal Democratic Party and the cabinet were filled by Mr. Abe’s close political aides and ideological colleagues, not distributed among party factions.
Thus, the prime minister has direct control of the party and the cabinet, both in name and reality. As those from the conservative right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party are placed in key posts, the attention focuses on the political behavior and policy direction of the prime minister’s office, led by Mr. Abe.
Mr. Abe is the most conservative prime minister Japan has ever had.
If his tendencies get directly reflected in Japan’s government policy, the waves in the straits between Korea and Japan will get even rougher.
Despite the ideological tendencies of Mr. Abe and other key cabinet ministers, however, the Abe administration is not likely to take a hard- line, one-sided policy toward Korea. Paradoxically enough, there is a strong possibility that the Abe administration will take a more flexible stance and resilient approach to South Korea.
First of all, the Abe administration is faced with a situation where it should restore badly deteriorated diplomatic relations with its neighboring countries.
In his position, it will be burdensome for him to endlessly ignore the demands of public opinion to improve diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.
For the safe sailing of the Abe administration, it needs to fare well at the upper house elections, which will be held nine months from now. To win those elections, at least, Mr. Abe believes it is necessary to break the brunt of the opposition’s criticism and display diplomatic achievements by improving diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.
We need to pay attention to Japan’s diplomatic history. After the war, Japan unfolded flexible diplomatic policies regardless of the political beliefs of its prime ministers.
In the 1950s, former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama normalized relations with Soviet Union, which the United States opposed, despite his conservative leaning. In addition, former Prime Minister Kishi made a sudden concession to South Korea to reopen Korea-Japan negotiations when discussions about the normalization of relations went adrift.
In the 1980s, former Prime Minister Nakasone gave up the idea of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine when he was faced with opposition from South Korea and China.
Instead of following their individual ideologies, Japan’s prime ministers have faithfully calculated the international political situation and cool-headedly followed the national interest.
As a politician, Mr. Abe is known as someone who listens to the advice of people around him. He also has the ability to communicate with people in an easy manner. In this regard, he is a strong contrast to Junichiro Koizumi who insisted on his will stubbornly. With regard to the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which is of concern to us, Mr. Abe is expected to keep a strategic ambiguity, while staying away from visiting.
This provides a clue. It is quite likely that Mr. Abe will try to improve relations with neighboring countries through summit diplomacy.
The change of government in Japan that has taken place can provide a good opportunity for improved relations with Japan, depending on the choices we make.
In retrospect, Japan caused relations to deteriorate suddenly last spring.
The conflicts over the Dokdo Islets, history textbooks and Yasukuni Shrine all started due to insensible provocations by the Koizumi administration.
South Korea’s excessive response to the Japanese actions has also played a role in making the conflicts flare up.
The conservatives in Japan have claimed in the past that the improvement of Korea-Japan relations will have to wait until a post-Roh Moo-hyun administration comes into power. If we ponder the situation closely, however, the change of government in Japan is a good opportunity to improve Korea-Japan relations.
The clue to the improvement of relations will be found when the heads of the state meet without condition and exchange sincere and frank views.
If Prime Minister Abe chooses Seoul as the first leg of his tour, it will be helpful to create a dramatic atmosphere to improve relations. A China-Japan summit meeting is anticipated in the near future, and relations between the two countries will quickly improve. If Korea-Japan relations remain rough, while China-Japan relations get soft, the diplomatic options left to us will shrink further.
We must use the inauguration of the Abe administration as an occasion to study how to establish a new relationship with Japan, keeping an open mind and flexible attitude.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Kookmin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Won-deog
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