Abe’s long shadowAs President Donald Trump is embarking on his first tour in Asia since his inauguration, Seoul and Tokyo are receiving their guest very differently.
Seoul is feeling prudent, with more anxiety than anticipation, while Tokyo is celebrating its cozy relationship with the president. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is treating Trump to a round of golf with a Japanese pro ranked fourth in the world, and Trump is showing consideration for Abe by meeting with families of those who were abducted by North Korea.
Abe visited Trump in New York eight days after Trump won the election victory, and after his inauguration, Abe was the second leader to have a meeting with him after the British prime minister. Trump has had 16 phone conversations with Abe, building a friendship on par with Reagan-Nakasone and Bush-Koizumi.
As many allies are concerned about the Trump administration’s business-oriented approach toward allies, Japan is the only one to clear uncertainty through a cozy relationship between the two leaders.
Korea needs to pay attention to Abe’s influence in Trump’s Asia policy. In fact, considerable parts of the phone conversations between Abe and Trump were not on U.S.-Japan affairs, but exchanges of opinion on the North Korean threat. The two countries hope to resolve the issue through their security alliance, but the views of the United States and Japan are somewhat different from South Korea’s, as their views include holding China in check militarily and applying pressure and sanctions on North Korea.
Therefore, to induce collaboration that can reflect South Korea’s interests, close dialogue and cooperation with the United States and Japan are important.
The Abe government justified the dissolution of the Japanese legislature with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s threats and led the Liberal Democrats to a landslide victory with a slogan to break through the national crisis. As his coalition government makes up more than two-thirds of seats required for a constitutional revision, Abe is likely to become the country’s longest-serving leader.
But the outcome is not bolstered by solid support from Japanese citizens. According to a poll from the Asahi Shimbun in October, the approval rating for Abe’s cabinet is 37 percent, lower than 46 percent disapproval. When asked why they don’t support the government, 38 percent said that they don’t trust Abe. Thirty-four percent supported Abe for another term, while 51 percent opposed. Therefore, Abe is making careful moves on tricky issues like constitutional revision and instead focusing on the North Korean threat.
This is hardly a bad situation for South Korea. The problem is trust between South Korea and Japan. The Abe government’s historical revisionism — especially on Japan’s wartime sex slavery — has led bilateral relations into their worst state since the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1965.
Despite the “comfort women” agreement in 2015, controversy has persisted and the relationship is not likely to recover soon. Park Geun-hye’s government failed catastrophically when it signed a resolution on the comfort women issue and linked it to overall South Korea-Japan relations. Park failed to deal with the excessive diplomatic pressure and made political compromises for an agreement.
Therefore, the beginning of President Moon Jae-in’s Japan policy should be two-track diplomacy, separating cooperation on the North Korean threat and other fronts from the history issue and making appropriate responses in each area.
With Trump’s Asia tour, the South Korean government should be able to lead military cooperation with Japan within the three countries’ cooperative framework as long as it helps deter North Korea and build peace on the Korean Peninsula. There is no reason to delay sharing military intelligence on North Korea, reinforcing deterrence and enhancing cooperation in missile defense. If we are reluctant to cooperate in fear of the results from Japan’s election — which could make it a country that can wage a war — South Korea will be left in the dark and unable to manage the United States and Japan’s demands for a regional alliance.
Similarly, the history issue needs to be addressed separately. Rather than being affected by international situations or domestic sentiment, we need to adhere to a logical response based on universal human values. A task force should analyze and review the process and outcome of the comfort women agreement, and a prudent decision with a broad view should be made based on its findings.
Abe’s shadow looms large over Trump. Abe could give a second look on South Korea if we offer him bold cooperation and make clear demands rather than being swayed by public opinion. This should be the dignified diplomacy that the Moon administration wants.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 4, Page 29
*The author is a professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies.