Japan’s new prime minister
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
With the selection of Suga Yoshihide as prime minister of Japan, could there be a change in Japan-Korea relations? Suga’s nickname is “Mr. Fix It,” but before considering whether he can fix the troubled Japan-Korea relationship, we have to remember how many constraints he faces at home and in Seoul.
The core of the current impasse between Seoul and Tokyo is one from which neither side can step back without political pain. Seoul argues that the 2015 agreement on comfort women between Abe and President Park Geun-hye is not enough. Tokyo maintains that the two leaders had agreed that was the final agreement and there is no basis for renegotiating the terms.
The more complicated problem is the Korean Supreme Court ruling that Korea’s Constitution takes precedence over the 1965 normalization treaty with Japan, and therefore claims can be brought against Japanese firms by Korean plaintiffs. Tokyo’s position is that the 1965 treaty was signed by two sovereign governments, and to rescind it unilaterally violates international norms and legal precedent.
There is also broader geopolitical and ideational complexity. Japan and Korea are the two countries in Asia most committed to maintaining a strong U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the region. However, Japan is responding to Chinese hegemonic ambitions by aligning with other maritime powers, like the United States, Australia and India, to preserve stability within a multipolarity of countries in an Indo-Pacific alarmed at Beijing’s actions. In contrast, Korea is more exposed to Chinese coercion economically and geographically and sees a U.S.-China bipolar competition emerging in Asia in which Korea must maintain strategic ambiguity while retaining strong security ties with the United States on the peninsula.
Japanese leaders think Korea is bandwagoning with China in ways that harm Japanese strategic interests. Korean leaders tend to see Japan’s maritime strategy as intensifying the competition in Northeast Asia in ways that exacerbate Korea’s own delicate position.
Japan and Korea are also the two countries in Asia most closely aligned on questions of democracy and maintaining an open-rules based order. But where Japan is increasingly advancing democratic norms with the free and open Indo-Pacific vision to compete with China’s authoritarian threat to democracy and regional order, many Korean leaders see their own democratization as the very reason that treaties signed by earlier more authoritarian governments with Tokyo must now be re-arbitrated.
The bottom line is that Suga cannot and will not easily change Japan’s perspective on these issues. For one thing, he faces virtually no pressure domestically or from the international community to renegotiate either the 1965 treaty or the 2015 agreement on comfort women. In polls in Korea, close to 80 percent of respondents said they did not trust Prime Minister Abe. In polls elsewhere in Asia (other than China), respondents have said that Abe is the world leader they trust the most. Suga has made it clear that he will not stray from Abe’s foreign policy strategy, which has broad support in the Diet.
But sometimes successful statecraft is about changing the overall tone in a relationship; about managing or minimizing rather than resolving intractable problems; about putting the negotiations on a separate track while focusing on areas of common interest. The only prospect for increasing empathetic Japanese views of Korea’s painful memory of the occupation is to reset the dialogue to bring out common humanity and democratic norms rather than continually digging deeper on the political and geopolitical themes that divide the two countries.
Suga is conservative, but he is more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. In contrast to Abe, who entered the Diet determined to complete his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke’s mission of consolidating alliance relations with the United States and marginalizing pacifist critics on the left, Suga’s entered the Diet in 1996 focused on practical social and economic issues confronting his home district in Yokohama. He had no political or ideological inheritance to advance since his own father had been a humble strawberry farmer.
Suga enjoys power like any politician, but unlike most, he enjoys the actual process of using power to accomplish things. The bureaucrats and business leaders in Japan respect that fact and fear him a bit, since he was the one who centralized government personnel decisions in the Prime Minister’s office. To the extent Abe successfully established a more centralized and “presidential” style of leadership, Suga was the engineer who made it happen.
Suga also studies problems deeply before acting. He has breakfasts every day with someone who can help him understand a knotty problem better. Then when he has decided something can be done about it, he pushes the bureaucracy to act promptly. One example is tourism, where he pushed through red tape on immigration in a few days, tripling Japan’s tourism economy within a few years. However, Suga only chooses things that he thinks can be fixed. The impasse over the 1965 or 2015 agreements between Tokyo and Seoul will probably not be one of those things.
But because Suga diligently listens and studies, Seoul would do well to establish a quiet and trusted interlocutor for him and his office to consult without the pressure of an actual negotiation. Behind the scenes, Suga was the one who stopped right-wing politicians in the LDP from trying to sabotage the 2015 agreement on comfort women.
If Seoul can minimize problems for Japanese interests, Suga will respond. When Suga is ready for his first summit meeting with President Moon, there could be an opportunity for a more positive atmosphere and perhaps agreement around issues like cooperation on economic assistance or women’s empowerment that contribute to peace and prosperity without immediately confronting China.
These smaller steps will probably do little to satisfy the desire of many in Korea for sweeping Japanese concessions, but the political and geopolitical conditions to achieve those sweeping concessions simply do not exist. And Korea — like Japan — is paying an economic and geopolitical price for the current impasse. With fairly modest steps, Suga and Moon have an opportunity to prompt a huge sigh of relief across the world right now.