[Outlook]Take action amid turmoilRecently, Japan has seemed to be moving backward. The U.S. House unanimously passed a resolution about former sex slaves despite Japan’s best diplomatic efforts to deter it. This gave the impression that Japan has failed to understand the public opinion in the rest of the world.
While the United States and North Korea negotiate and the six-party talks proceed over the denuclearization of Pyongyang, Japan has prioritized the issue of its abductees, giving the impression that it is standing in the way of smooth progress in the discussions.
In a July election of members of the House of Councilors, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who shouted in favor of getting rid of the country’s postwar system, experienced a devastating defeat.
This unveiled the wide gap between the needs of the Japanese people and the slogans of the Abe administration.
To change the atmosphere both inside and outside of Japan, Abe reshuffled the cabinet and the ruling party on Aug. 27.
By appointing Taro Aso, the former foreign minister, as the secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, the party’s No. 2 leader, Abe wanted to establish the party structure with Aso and himself at the center to keep his political clout secure.
At the same time, he employed veteran politicians in the cabinet in an attempt to stop criticism about his former cabinet, which had been dubbed the “buddy-buddy” cabinet, or the cabinet of amateurs.
When we see even conservative newspapers in Japan say the move was belated or say the abilities of the new cabinet members are yet to be known, the reshuffling of the cabinet doesn’t seem to appeal to the Japanese.
As the defense minister and foreign minister have been replaced, we hope Korea-Japan relations and Japan’s North Korea policy will change.
Nobutaka Machimura, the new foreign minister, and Masahiko Komura, the new defense minister, are known as conservative right-wing figures. In 2004, when Machimura served also as foreign minister, he made the controversial remark that no Japanese textbooks had any content praising militarism.
Before the August election of the House of Representatives, he said that only North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would want to see the Japanese ruling party fail to get half of the seats in the parliament, attempting to use North Korea to scare voters.
Still, the new defense minister and foreign minister are not expected to cause conflicts with neighboring countries, as former Foreign Minister Aso did.
The Abe administration is in a difficult political situation. For instance, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Takehiko Endo resigned over a subsidy misuse scandal. Thus, it is very unlikely that Abe will ruin cooperative diplomacy with other Asian countries, which is now considered to be his achievement, and create tension.
Besides, the issue of whether Abe will succeed at extending the anti-terrorism special measures law, which will expire Nov. 1, remains the touchstone of his administration. If the bill to extend the law is not passed, it is inevitable that the Self Defense Forces stationed abroad will be withdrawn, threatening the destiny of the Abe administration. If things go that way, Abe will likely dismiss the parliament or offer his ministers’ general resignations. If that happens, it would be next spring.
To increase his approval ratings drastically, Abe needs to settle the issue of the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea. In Japan’s political circles, some say Abe will have to resign due to his hard-line policy on North Korea, while others say he is the only politician who can solve the issue of Japanese abductees.
But North Korea is now focusing on improving its ties with the United States as Abe sustains his approval ratings, however mediocre, thanks to his North Korea policy. It is hard to expect North Korea-Japan relations to improve for a while.
Thus, Japan will not play a more active role in diplomacy with North and South Korea until after the upcoming election. The problem is that neither South Korea nor Japan seems to have the will to improve their ties before South Korea’s presidential election and Japan’s House of Representatives election. Some might ask if there is any hurry to improve South Korea-Japan relations.
But if both governments do not make efforts to improve their ties while both countries are going through political changes, Japan and South Korea will probably bear a much heavier political burden later. It will be wise for South Korea and Japan to start now to draw a big strategic picture and make new plans for the future.
*The writer is the vice director of the Sejong Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily.
by Jin Chang-soo