A need to normalize strained ties
Japan’s ruling coalition won a new two-thirds majority in snap parliamentary elections over the weekend, securing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe four more years in power and giving traction to his waning popularity and public policies. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won 291 seats and its coalition partner New Komeito Party 35 - taking up 326 in the 475-member Lower House. It added 31 extra seats from the recent election, which saw a record-low turnout.
If not for a major misstep, Abe, who was elected in 2012, will be safe until 2018 - a rare and lengthy term for a Japanese leader. The call for the election was puzzling and unnecessary, as an election wasn’t required until late 2016 and the LDP already had a sizable majority. The victory comes as no surprise because it had been carefully planned, and motivated by political purposes.
Abe was able to reap what he sought - increased legislative dominance and a silencing of the complaints and doubts surrounding his agenda - thanks to a weaker and more impotent opposition. Almost half of the Japanese population is unhappy about Abe’s reversal of Japan’s nuclear reactor policy, his revival of collective self-defense, his revisionist historical views and his right-winged political agenda. Yet opposition parties failed to muster their voices to be heard at the polls. The Democratic Party, with its internal struggles, only gained 73 seats. Japan is now under a one-driver power system: the conservative LDP and an invincible Abe.
Despite an array of controversial issues Abe was railroading - the reactivation of nuclear reactors, the rewriting of the Constitution, the re-institutionalization of the right to collective self-defense and a reinterpretation of historical views - “Abenomics” and the second increase in sales tax dominated the campaign debate. More than half of young voters stayed away from the polls, leading to a lowest-ever turnout of 52 percent. The growing aging population also contributed to the conservative party’s landslide victory. It’s actually ironic that the LDP was able to secure nearly 300 seats with an absolute voting rate of less than 20 percent.
The Abe administration will likely raise the pitch on its campaign to remove any post-war remnants. It is expected to accelerate down this path by legalizing the right to collective self-defense. But blatantly overturning Japan’s pacifist Constitution won’t be easy. To motion for constitutional reform, the ruling party must achieve a two-thirds majority in the 2016 elections and win more than half the votes in a national referendum. Abe may become more outspoken in his revisionist historical views next year when Japan commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His Aug. 15 statement commemorating the end of the Asia-Pacific War could be in a different tone even if he doesn’t outright reverse the past manifestoes of former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, who issued landmark statements apologizing for the country’s wartime aggressions.
What concerns our government is how Seoul can get along with the newly empowered Abe administration. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries. It would be the best time to elevate bilateral relations, but there are few signs that we will reach this turning point. The last two years proved that we cannot make Japan suddenly change its stance on security or history.
Just because we don’t like the policies or the direction of the Abe government, we cannot go on snubbing our closest neighbor. Diplomacy with Japan must be carefully balanced in the foreign affairs framework. Seoul needs Tokyo for its trust-building process with North Korea, its security network for peace in Northeast Asia and the transcontinental Eurasia initiative. With hostilities toward Koreans building across the Japanese population, Korea must be more aggressive in its public diplomacy toward Japan through universal agenda items.
Korea and Japan must meet first and discuss what needs to be ironed out. A summit could follow talks by our foreign ministers next year. The “comfort women” issue should be dealt in talks, but it should be approached within a broad context in order to come to a conclusive agreement for a better relationship, rather than as a condition for a meeting.
Japan has made no progress with North Korea because it insisted its abduction problem be solved first. If talks are not possible at the moment, the two must attempt to normalize ties by putting aside a summit agenda. Seoul should carry on with diplomatic endeavors to improve ties with the Japanese government and its people, and separate historical issues from economic and security policies. The country must do more to improve ties with Japan next year and make the most of the momentum before the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 16, Page 37
*The author is a professor of international studies at Kookmin University.
by Lee Won-deok