Suga adopts Abe's hard line toward South Korea
Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday called on South Korea to present a solution to their ongoing dispute over compensation for wartime forced laborers, making evident he is maintaining his hawkish predecessor’s hardline stance toward Seoul.
While calling South Korea “a very important neighboring country,” Suga vowed in an address to the Japanese Diet that his government would “strongly urge an appropriate response [from South Korea] in line with Japan’s consistent position” before bilateral ties are restored to a “healthy” state.
The position Suga outlined in his speech — his first parliamentary address following his inauguration as prime minister last month — was identical to the uncompromising attitude espoused by predecessor Shinzo Abe on the forced labor issue.
Abe made a similar statement last October in the Diet, saying it was up to Seoul to offer a solution to resolving the diplomatic standoff over Korean judicial rulings on forced labor.
The Korean Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on Oct. 30, 2018, ordering Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, renamed Nippon Steel last year, to pay 100 million won ($82,000) each to Korean victims of Japanese forced labor during World War II. It made a similar ruling on Nov. 29, 2018, against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The top court acknowledged the illegality of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule and recognized that the individual’s right to compensation has not expired.
Tokyo maintains that a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations with Seoul settled all compensation matters.
The leadership change in Tokyo from Abe to Suga last month came amid concerns that tensions between the neighbors could flare up once again if authorities in Korea move to liquidate assets owned by Nippon Steel.
As chief cabinet secretary under Abe, Suga warned in August that the selling off of the steelmaker’s assets “would lead to a serious situation that must be avoided” and that Tokyo plans to “respond resolutely with all options in sight.”
He repeated that warning during his first trip abroad to Indonesia last week, saying that any losses incurred by Japanese companies in Korea would put bilateral relations in a “very serious” situation.
According to Japan’s Kyodo News, Tokyo also informed Seoul earlier this month that Suga would not be attending a trilateral summit hosted by Korea this year unless Seoul halted the liquidation process.
Suga in his address Monday appeared to extend an olive branch to North Korea, reiterating Abe’s past offers to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “without condition.”
The abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea “remains the most important challenge for the administration,” Suga said, stressing he would focus efforts to repatriate every victim of supposed kidnapping by the North.
Following a flurry of inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits in 2018, Abe proposed a direct meeting with Kim, calling it the only way to break the shell of mutual distrust and open dialogue on the abductee issue.
Pyongyang has all but rejected the offers, saying the issue of abductions has been completely resolved.
Suga’s divergent approaches to the two Koreas has been panned even in Japan, where several outlets have criticized his decision to set preconditions on a summit with the South while insisting on none with the North.
“Prime Minister Suga appears to fear domestic backlash in the case Japanese companies’ seized assets are liquidated following a visit to Seoul at the end of the year,” read a Tokyo Shimbun editorial on Sunday.
“But if there are issues, then compromises should be found through direct meetings. That is the basis of diplomacy.”
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [email@example.com]