Abe’s stupid stuntJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined an audience listening to South Korean President Park Geun-hye deliver an address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. From a front row seat he applauded her presentation, which was made in English, but the two leaders didn’t make eye contact or even come face-to-face during the international event, amid tensions that were raised after the prime minister’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last month. Instead, Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se politely greeted Abe. That’s the best Korea would offer him.
At an earlier Korea Night reception, Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, showed up. Shimomura caused an uproar in Korea with his announcement that Tokyo would rewrite administrative guidelines to stipulate in school textbooks that the Dokdo islets in the East Sea are Japanese territory. Seoul officials were confounded by the unexpected arrival of such an inappropriate Japanese guest.
Abe may have wanted to offer a conciliatory gesture to his South Korean counterpart in the snowy mountains of the Alps. Abe has proposed a summit with Park many times, only to be ignored. Unlike in the past, when new leaders of the neighboring countries made efforts to meet each other soon after their inaugurations, Abe and Park did not hold a summit even at the start of their second years in office.
But Abe’s good intentions cannot be believed. Abe has been making one controversial action or offensive comment after another - worsening territorial disputes, increasing military spending, calling for a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution, and, of course, making a visit to the controversial shrine for the Japanese war dead. Tokyo knows full well that the current bilateral relationship is too messed up to be untangled by a friendly gesture and some applause. Abe’s act in the audience of Park’s speech was nothing but a publicity stunt on the international stage and not a very successful one.
Tokyo may be worried about falling out with Washington. It has been trying to blame Seoul for the bad ties without much luck. Abe approached Park during a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Indonesia last year after Washington officials expressed concern about the frayed ties between its two closest allies in Asia. He was rebuffed.
In an unusually blunt tone, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said it was disappointed with Abe’s Yasukuni stunt, which was guaranteed to exacerbate tensions with its neighbors. Tokyo also may think it needs to cozy up to Seoul before the latter builds a concerted front with Beijing against Japan. Its clumsy overtures can only annoy and anger its neighbors.
What Abe needs is to reform his view of Japan’s wretched history. As long as he continues with narratives and actions glorifying and condoning Japan’s past brutalities, the Korea-Japan relationship has no future.