The prime minister’s turn
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Japan’s economic retaliations for the Korean Supreme Court’s rulings that Japanese firms must pay damages to forced labor victims are hitting Korea in a far worse way than expected. The Moon Jae-in administration’s naïve attitude caused the crisis, but Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, a well-known Japan expert, is not entirely free of blame.
Lee is perhaps the only Japan expert in the Moon administration. Before becoming a politician, he worked as a newspaper correspondent in Tokyo for three years. When he was a lawmaker, he served as vice president of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union. When he was undergoing a confirmation hearing to become prime minister in 2017, some even criticized him for being too friendly with Japan.
Since 2000, he had 85 overseas business trips, and 62 were to Japan. In 2011, he said it was necessary to have a discussion on the location of a comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, stirring suspicions that he was supporting Japan’s side. After he was nominated as prime minister, the Japanese media welcomed his nomination.
More interestingly, he has a significant tie to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Lee met with Abe at the Eastern Economic Forum in Russia last September. At the meeting, accompanied by their aides, Lee reminded Abe of their history. “Before Abe was appointed chief cabinet secretary in 2005, he came to Seoul and drank with me on a rainy weekend,” Lee said. “I asked him to resolve the issue of Korean Hansen’s disease patients and he completely resolved it. Because he resolved it, I told him that he could make an announcement if he wanted. As Abe kept that promise, I have never told any media about what happened.”
Abe, of course, listened to Lee’s remarks with a smile.
Lee had asked Abe to arrange Japan to pay compensation to Korean Hansen’s disease patients over the compulsory quarantine police instituted under Japanese colonial rule. Japan used the same policy for patients in its own country and Taiwan as well. After liberation, human rights issues emerged, and the Japanese government paid compensation to its own victims. Koreans and Taiwanese patients, however, were left out. Japan argued that their quarantine facilities were not technically Japan’s national facilities.
Perhaps thanks to Abe’s power, the Japanese government started paying compensation to the Korean victims starting in early 2006.
As that incident shows, Lee’s sway with influential Japanese figures is strong. After he was nominated prime minister, Japanese media reported that former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Professor Emeritus of Keio University Masao Okonogi and former Tokyo Mayor Yoichi Masuzoe were Lee’s friends. Expectations were high that Lee would play a key role in improving Korea-Japan relations.
At first, Lee was full of energy. After his nomination, he reportedly told a Japanese friend that President Moon Jae-in was prioritizing Japan and he would try to become a bridge between the two countries. In an interview four months after his appointment, Lee made a noteworthy remark that he hoped the ageing Emperor Akihito would visit Korea before he steps down.
But Lee disappeared from the spotlight after the Supreme Court rulings on compensation to forced laborers. He said he would create a joint committee between the government and civilian sectors, but no clear resolution was produced. As no progress was made, Japan expressed its disappointment. “We refrained from making countermoves because we had a belief that Prime Minister Lee would present a resolution, but he said there was a limit to what the Korean government can do. So we cannot wait anymore,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono in May, hinting at the magnitude of Tokyo’s expectations — and disappointment.
Lee used to put all his efforts into resolve issues between the two countries. He has changed. What caused the change? Japan experts say he changed after he was seen as a possible presidential contender. They said he is trying to avoid any action that would label him as a pro-Japan politician for the sake of his presidential ambition. Lee was ranked top in the polls among potential presidential contenders late last year.
Maybe it’s a misunderstanding. Maybe Lee has no room to move because of the politicians desiring to take advantage of anti-Japan sentiment. But one thing is clear. If Lee has real ambition, he should come forward now. A prime minister is the second highest official in an administration after the president. Wasting his abilities in a time of a national crisis is not the right thing to do as a public servant. Who will vote for a leader who only cares about his own career?
JoongAng Ilbo, July 9, Page 30