Will Kishida be different?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A new cabinet headed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was launched in Tokyo on Monday. Over the past two years, Japan’s prime minister was changed from Shinzo Abe to Yoshihide Suga to Kishida. The ideological spectrum of Japan’s leadership moved gradually from the far right to the center. Kishida is a liberal politician of the Liberal Democratic Party and a member of the Kochikai party faction that values friendships with Asian countries. He also identifies himself as a globalist.
He has a special relationship with Korea. As widely known, he was the foreign minister of Japan who signed the agreement with Korea to settle the wartime sexual slavery issues in 2015. He also struck a deal in 2016 to sign the bilateral intelligence sharing pact of General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia). It is safe to say that Kishida has a high understanding of Korea’s way of thinking. Expectations, therefore, are high that Korea-Japan relations will improve. Will it be really possible?
We had the same anticipation one year ago, and we know how that panned out. When Abe abruptly stepped down because of his poor health, an economic weekly magazine in Japan wrote that Korea would welcome Abe’s resignation the most. Expectations spread that bilateral relations would improve, since Korea’s “No Abe” boycott in 2019 was realized. Furthermore, Abe’s successor was a pragmatist, and many expected him to be flexible. The Moon Jae-in administration appeared to have some expectations. But that was wishful thinking. Moon and Suga held no summit over the past year.
Suga and Kishida share some commonalities. When Korea signed the comfort women agreement with Japan in 2015, Abe was the prime minister while Suga was the chief cabinet secretary and Kishida was the foreign minister. Abe, a historical revisionist, was passive about the agreement. He probably was unwilling to sign an agreement that officially admits to the responsibility of the Japanese government and offered a prime minister’s apology. Suga and Kishida, however, persuaded Abe to do it.
When negotiations hit obstacles, they also worked to find resolutions. A former senior diplomat said the Japanese government initially offered an extremely small amount of compensation, but Suga and Kishida worked to raise the amount to 1 billion yen ($9 million), allowing Korea to accept the offer.
As Suga and Kishida were proud of the agreement, they reportedly were furious about Moon’s decision to dissolve the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, established to implement the agreement. Everyone remembers a lesson from their own experience. Not only Abe, but also Suga and Kishida have both said Korea is a country that does not honor a promise.
At the beginning of its term, the Moon administration was likely confident that it would be able to change Japan’s attitude about history. But it probably never expected that politicians who are deeply distrustful of Korea due to its abolishment of the comfort women agreement would become Japanese prime ministers one after another. The Kishida cabinet’s position, at least on the history issue, will not be much different from its predecessors.
In 2008, Japanese diplomats had high expectations that Korea-Japan relations would get better because Lee Myung-bak won the presidential election. In the early days of Lee’s presidency, bilateral relations were restored, but in the final days of Lee’s term, Korea-Japan relations were far worse than during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. The aftermath is still continuing.
Political leaders of the two countries must stop treating relations as if they were a disposable good with a less than a five-year expiration date. Moon, whose term is nearing its end, and Kishida, who just started his term, must not waste their time by doing nothing just because improving Korea-Japan relations is a thorny issue that cannot be resolved immediately.