Seeking a ‘plausible alternative solution’

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Seeking a ‘plausible alternative solution’

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The flag of the United States was flown at half-staff at all public buildings, military bases and government facilities from Friday untill sunset on Sunday out of respect for Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, who was assassinated on Friday morning. The U.S. government only paid such honors to the passing of world leaders like former British prime minister Winston Churchill and South African president Nelson Mandela. Other global leaders also paid similar respect. Not only heads of state in Western Europe but also Russian President Vladmir Putin sent a letter of condolence to Abe’s mother despite Japan’s joining of sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and long-standing territorial disputes.

The common show of mourning underscores Abe’s international reputation. Abe contributed to creating a new international order through Indo-Pacific network when traditional alliances among democracies showed fissures under a nationalistic drive by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

The response from South Koreans to the sudden death of Abe is different from other parts of the world. Some South Koreans could not agree with his revisionist perspective of history. While Abe was in office, the bilateral relationship sank to the lowest point. South Koreans hit the streets with a banner reading “No Abe” in a boycott against anything related to Japan after Tokyo slammed curbs on exports of materials for IT components bound for Korea in retaliation for the Korean top court’s order to Japanese companies to compensate for the forced wartime labor.

When Abe offered to step down as prime minister two years ago, an economic journal said his decision would be most welcomed by South Korea. Koreans believed bilateral relations would be normalized if Abe was no more in power. But his successors Yoshihide Suga and Fumio Kishida upheld a hard-line stance towards Seoul. They withheld any changes until the South Korean government first presented a solution to the impasse from the court rulings on wartime labor.
Hopes for a breakthrough in bilateral ties could be renewed as current Prime Minister Kishida would no longer fear offending Abe for going against his policies. Abe commanded the hawkish Seiwaken faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) while Kisihda is aligned to the traditionally dovish Kochikai faction. But given the dynamics of the LDP — overwhelmingly conservative tone of the party and consistency on issues related to Korea — such a hope could be merely wishful thinking from the Korean side. There are hardly any politicians in Japan who sympathize with Korea on past issues or who would raise their voice in defending Korea.

Such a phenomenon is not restricted to the political community. The postwar generation of Japan bearing little guilt for the doings of their ancestors have become the mainstream in the Japanese society which has turned increasingly rightist. Abe has ushered the country toward a rightist path, but he may have cleverly ridden on the changes in the society. The political mainstream are followers of Abe, and more citizens are supportive of Abe than oppose their former hard-line leader. Abe is no more, but “No Abe” still can hardly stand.

The change in the governing power in South Korea could influence bilateral relations more than Abe’s death. The previous administration under president Moon Jae-in had been consistently antagonistic towards Japan whereas the new government under President Yoon Suk-yeol feels the need for improved relations. Seoul and Tokyo have somewhat narrowed their differences over the North Korean nuclear threat and the rivalry between America and China.

Solutions to wartime labor remains as the major stumbling block. The problem cannot be solved unless each of the two governments yield to some extent. Given the ramifications in each country, none of the two can attempt a unilateral surrender. One option being floated in diplomatic circles is Seoul compensating wartime laborers on behalf of Japanese companies. In response, Tokyo must publicly express a regret or apology or create a fund to join the compensation to persuade the labor victims or critics. The leaders of the two countries had better find a “plausible alternative solution” instead of an “impossible best solution” and try to persuade the people of their own countries. The alternative then can end up being the best choice for the two neighbors
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