Untying the Gordian knot

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Untying the Gordian knot

 Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has been confirmed to succeed Shinzo Abe as Japanese prime minister. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) endorsed the hawkish statesman as its new leader after the sudden resignation of Abe.

After serving as the longest cabinet spokesman, Suga succeeds multiple sticking points in state and foreign affairs. One is the conflict with South Korea. The two neighboring countries are at odds over the wartime forced labor compensation issue, along with other longstanding territorial, historical and comfort women disputes and a loosely-held military information sharing pact. The two governments are deadlocked over these issues even though they have been damaging bilateral and common interests.

The world is in turmoil, fatigued and pained by damages from the Covid-19 pandemic. The world won’t be able to pull itself out of the slump unless it works together closely. Cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is pivotal. Yet they have been chained to past issues and emotions.

Global security order is also rapidly changing. The strategic contest between the United States and China has spread beyond the economic and diplomatic front to spill over to security. North Korea may attempt another provocation ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November. North Korea is in dire straits from lengthened sanctions, virus woes and repeated typhoons and flooding. It is uncertain what erratic and extreme moves the nuclear-armed state may take next. Seoul and Tokyo must cooperate closely to raise vigilance.

Suga’s ascent offers a turning point. He has stayed as a spokesman for Abe, but he is now free to raise his own voice and style in Japanese leadership. He needs to address the wartime labor issue first. A Korean court has alerted it could liquidate assets of Japanese companies in Korea to compensate the survivors. If forced liquidation starts, the consequences could be grave for both countries. The move could trigger similar actions in other countries. Suga must rise above the Abe age with eyes on the future.

The Moon Jae-in administration also must respond differently to a different leader. It has refrained from severing the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia). The government also suspended actions on the forced labor compensation issue and liquidation in Japanese assets. The Moon administration must try to seek a breakthrough in their bilateral relationship.

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