How to deal with AbeNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but they are tremendously similar in certain aspects: They both decide important policies with a stubborn type of intrinsic reasoning. Instead of worrying about the international community’s opinion or relationships with neighboring countries, one fires a long-range missile to serve the need of his domestic politics while the other pushes forward polices to cater to his conservative right wing. By behaving in such a way, Kim drives his recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang further into isolation, while Abe exhausts the energy and squanders the opportunity to rebuild Japan’s weakened economy and recover Japan’s once-proud international status.
Shortly after the Dec. 19 presidential election in South Korea, Abe attempted to send a special envoy to President-elect Park Geun-hye but failed. He made the announcement to the press without prior consultation with Park’s side, and ended up postponing the plan based on the recommendations from Seoul and Tokyo that it would be better to reschedule the special envoy’s visit to Seoul until after he took office as the prime minister and sent a letter from the Japanese prime minister, not the head of the Liberal Democratic Party. Looking at the faces in the Abe cabinet, it was the right decision for Korea to react cautiously to his plan to send a special envoy. The new Abe cabinet is packed with politicians with ultra-right perspectives on such thorny issues as the Dokdo islets, comfort women and Japan’s history textbooks. Some Japanese scholars who spoke positively about Abe forecasted that he, as prime minister, would take the path of a realist rather than that of an ideologue because he, like many politicians, has two faces. The appointments he made to his cabinet, however, threw cold water on that optimism.
In a contribution to the Financial Times last month, Harvard Prof. Joseph Nye expressed concerns that the Abe cabinet will make Japan an inward-turning country. He warned that if Japan “turns inward to reinvigorate populist nationalism without playing an active role on the world stage, the world as well as Japan will be worse off.” With Abe, however, even the most well meaning advice from the outside world falls on deaf ears. That too is the case with Kim Jong-un. The international community repeatedly warned Kim that firing a long-range missile would only make worse the sanctions on the North and that his country would be further isolated and his people will suffer more. That did nothing to stop his intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Abe wants to attend Park’s presidential inauguration in February. The plan to send an envoy was to discuss the possibility of his coming. If Abe can have a summit with Park after attending the ceremony and discuss the three major pending issues between the two countries — Dokdo, the so-called comfort women and Japan’s history textbooks — and pave the way for a successful restoration of the strained Korea-Japan relationship, which was on the brink of catastrophe during the Lee Myung-bak administration, we would welcome the idea. But Park, as the president, should make clear Korea’s positions and clearly state some red lines on those three significant issues. First, Dokdo is not a pending issue between South Korea and Japan. Second, Japan’s historical distortions are a long-term, broader issue. And third, the most urgent issue for us is the women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military.
The Yoshihiko Noda administration sent a secret envoy to Korea in April who presented a plan to resolve the comfort women issue. According to the proposal, Noda would apologize for the comfort women at a Lee-Noda summit, the Japanese government would pay compensation to the comfort women and the Japanese ambassador to Korea would meet with them. The Korean government turned down the proposal because it didn’t involve any legal responsibility on Japan’s part. What is legal responsibility? It is an admission that the Japanese government forced the women into sexual slavery during World War II, and it also involves an official apology for the tragedy. What’s important for us is not money, but to restore the dignity of the comfort women whose womanhood and humanity were destroyed by Japan’s acts. What we want are not words of consolation but a true apology for an inhuman crime. While Japan refuses to confront its shameful past, the issue of the comfort women escalated to the universal wartime sexual slavery issue, and Japan is driven further into a corner.
Ironically, the only person in Japan who can address the three critical issues is Abe because he is strongly supported by the conservative right wing in Japan. We have seen a precedent in 1972 when U.S. President Richard Nixon — the symbol of American conservatism — made a dramatic visit to Beijing and created an epochal change not only in U.S.-China relations but also in international politics. The new leaders of Korea and Japan must keep their dialogue going. Even though Kim Jong-un fired a long-range missile, the two Koreas, the United States and Japan have no choice but to continue talking. In the Asia Pacific, China is increasingly trying to flex its military muscle, and North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats are growing. At this juncture, security cooperation between Korea and Japan is crucial. That’s why the U.S. is pressuring Japan to improve its relationship with South Korea.
After Japan’s upper house elections are over in July, the discussion to amend its “Peace Constitution” to become a state with normal military power will quickly gain momentum. Japan’s re-emergence as a military power will not necessarily mean a return to despicable militarism. We should elicit a legally binding solution to the comfort women issue through flexible and composed diplomacy — both official and unofficial — by wisely taking advantage of the international community’s sympathy with our side while maintaining an open-minded attitude toward Japan’s constitutional revision and rearmament.