In this June 28, 2019 photo, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, walks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upon his arrival at the G-20 leaders summit in Osaka. Photo: AP file

With Abe's exit, South Korea seeks to mend Japan ties


It took a bombshell resignation before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heard anything nice from South Korea.

The rare praise came after years of diplomatic rows and testy confrontations between Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and only after the Japanese prime minister announced at the end of last month that he was stepping down after eight years in office because of ill health.

With Abe and Moon in charge, the relationship between the key U.S. allies sank to new lows, with grievances over wartime history spilling over into trade and military issues. Japan's political shakeup could be an opportunity for South Korea, which sees Abe’s departure as a chance to clear things up between the rivals.

Senior South Korean officials during a recent national security council meeting vowed to “advance stalled negotiations on pending issues” once a new Japanese leader is in place. Yoshihide Suga, currently Chief Cabinet Secretary and Abe’s right-hand man, won Japan’s governing party leadership vote Monday, virtually guaranteeing that parliament will choose him as the next prime minister.

Suga has also hinted at improving ties with South Korea.

“China and South Korea are neighbors, and even though there are difficult problems between us, I plan to pursue diplomacy that can allow us to always communicate and develop strategic relations with them, rather than choosing one or the other,” he said in a recent debate.

Good relations are crucial to both Japan and South Korea.

Despite their political conflicts, they remain closely connected economically and face similar challenges. Those include North Korea's growing nuclear arsenal and a rising authoritarian superpower in China.

They also share long-term uncertainties about their alliances with a less-engaging United States, a shift highlighted by President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach and his complaints about the costs of stationing some 80,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan.

“Patching up differences with Tokyo would improve alliance coordination with the United States, help manage regional uncertainties concerning China, and provide Seoul leverage in dealing with North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

What remains unclear, however, is whether Abe’s exit will prove to be a diplomatic turning point. Mutual resentment runs deep and goes beyond individual politicians.

To South Koreans, Abe was less likable than even North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to a November Gallup Korea poll. Abe was often seen in South Korea as a right-wing nationalist intent on whitewashing Japanese colonialism and atrocities on the Korean Peninsula before the end of World War II.

Placing the blame for bad relations entirely on Abe, however, overlooks the broad public support he won at home for a tough policy toward South Korea.

There’s a widespread view in Japan that South Korea is violating international norms by repeatedly revisiting wartime issues that were supposed to have been settled, said Choi Eun-mi, a Japan expert at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“Abe’s resignation does offer a window for improved relations, but it’s unrealistic to expect significant changes,” she said.

There will be chances to resume stalled talks between the countries' leaders, including a possible three-way summit with China that South Korea hopes to host in November. But it will take longer for Seoul and Tokyo to “rediscover their importance to each other” beyond their interdependence in security and cooperation matters with Washington, Choi said.

South Korea and Japan have long differed over history, but previous political tensions were softened by vibrant trade and exchanges of pop culture and tourism.

That wasn’t the case in 2019 when Japan’s move to place export controls on chemicals vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry sparked an outpouring of national anger in South Korea and sweeping boycotts of Japanese products.

Moon accused Abe’s government of weaponizing trade to retaliate against South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to offer reparations to aging Korean plaintiffs who had been forced into wartime slave labor.

Seoul later threatened to terminate a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, a major symbol of their trilateral security cooperation with Washington. It eventually backed off after being pressured by the Trump administration, which until then seemed content to let its allies escalate their feud in public.

South Korea and Japan’s strained relations have hurt their ability to deal with the unpredictable foreign policy of Trump, who has questioned the value of U.S. alliances while raising tensions with China, a major trading partner for both, said Park Won-gon, a professor at South Korea’s Handong University.

“Ideally, strong coordination between South Korea and Japan would help steer the Trump administration into pursuing its regional strategies within international norms and rules,” Park said.

South Korea will likely need to close the gap between its domestic court rulings and existing bilateral agreements to improve ties with Japan.

Many Japanese see the South Korean forced labor rulings as a challenge to a 1965 treaty between the countries that was accompanied by Japanese payments to restore diplomatic ties. Tokyo insists that all compensation matters were settled then.

There’s also frustration over Moon’s 2017 decision to walk back a 2015 agreement negotiated under South Korea's previous conservative government that attempted to “irreversibly” resolve a decades-long impasse over Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s wartime military.

The deal, which had Japan give $9 million to a foundation to help the victims, sparked huge protests in South Korea, where many accused their government of settling for far too little after failing to consult victims. There were claims that Abe was attempting to silence the women with money.

There has been little sign that either government is willing to budge.

Moon continues to demand Japanese respect for the South Korean court rulings. Suga, the likely successor to Abe, has pledged to inherit his policies and push them forward.

There's a further complicating possibility that South Korean courts may order the liquidation of local assets of Japanese companies that have refused to compensate forced laborers.

A breakthrough may have to come from legislation, but that won’t be easy, either.

Former South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang last year proposed a foundation created by private donations from both countries to compensate forced laborers. The bill, which eventually died, was heavily criticized by lawyers and activists representing victims, who said the foundation would sidestep the Japanese government’s direct responsibility.

“Regardless of who becomes Japan’s next prime minister ... there will be limits to how much bilateral relations can improve unless the countries find a solution to the forced labor issue,” Park said.

© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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What remains unclear, however, is whether Abe’s exit will prove to be a diplomatic turning point. Mutual resentment runs deep and goes beyond individual politicians.

A diplomatic turning point might finally come when Moon leaves the office. Mending the relationship with SK is not at all a priority, not an urgent issue for Japan under Suga.

14 ( +19 / -5 )

Slight modifications to perpetual claim of victim status imminent for both sides.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Noriahojanen - Not so sure that mending Korea ties is not an urgent issue with Suga. Suga's priority will be the pandemic, the olympics and jump starting the economy. By 2019 Q4 Japan's economy was tanking and one of the main reasons was because of the trade dispute with their third largest trading partner, Korea. I do agree with you that Moon's departure will help.

-2 ( +7 / -9 )


sorry but I can’t stop laughing at the photo, with trump.

Anyway, good luck to both SK and JP.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Abe out, Suga in.

Predictions . . . South Korea and Moon Jae-in temporarily mend relations, then the Comfort Women issue gets raised again by South Korea. Rinse repeat.

18 ( +21 / -3 )

The greatest diplomatic action he made after 8 years in office is resigning. Good job now retire and leave the rest of us alone.

-10 ( +4 / -14 )

Agree, Moon's departure needed.

16 ( +20 / -4 )

Drop ALL demands for money, drop ALL demands for yet more apologies, drop the almost daily anti-Japan rallies, stop the constant bullying and picking on Japan, and maybe, just maybe, PM Suga will look at slowly improving relations.

I cant see any improvement in relations any time soon, and this is actually no concern for Japan which is ticking along nicely without any relationship with SK.

14 ( +20 / -6 )

By 2019 Q4 Japan's economy was tanking and one of the main reasons was because of the trade dispute with their third largest trading partner, Korea.

No, experts argue that the latest tax hike is responsible for economic downturns, not to mention the pandemic has made it worse.

Unlike SK, Japan is not dependent on overseas markets. Its international trade (including inbound tourism) constitutes only 16 % of the entire GDP. Korea's NO JAPAN boycott campaigns have rarely affected Japanese businesses.

8 ( +14 / -6 )

Slight modifications to perpetual claim of victim status imminent for both sides.

Except one side was a victim (invaded) and the other was the aggressor (invader)...

-11 ( +8 / -19 )

Yea right.

I'll believe it when I see it.

The SK government needs to stop endorsing blind hatred of Japan, stop getting angry over every perceived slight, and they need to be held accountable for sticking to any agreements between the two.

I mean, look what happened recently when some "activist" embezzled Comfort Women funds. Absolutely disgusting.

7 ( +14 / -7 )

Might be telling abt Chinas invasion of SK as oe victim sk (invaded) aggressor china (invader) nothing else

5 ( +8 / -3 )

It's SK who keeps trashing the relationship for domestic political points and some back pocket money.

8 ( +12 / -4 )

Top photo, is South Korean President Moon Jae-in depicting a snigger, or a smirk?

Abe san looks like a statesman. How times have changed.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

South Korea issues with Japan as of 2020

-They dont like the 1965 aggrement as Final.

-The don't like the 2015 Comfort woman deal as Final.

-Over 50 Apologies given by different Party groups in our government, Korea doesn't like any of them, not one was sincere.

-Building comfort women statues around the world creating hate against Japanese.

-Trying to Change the name of Japan Sea. They don't approve of that name.

-Japanese text books, don't have enough humiliation, guilt, blame, shame on Japan for the War. Koreans want more.

-UNESCO Japan sites they disapprove. Have challenged Japan at the WTO.

-Illegally occupied Japan Island 1954 they call it Dokdo. Want Japan to say its Korean.

-Want Japanese government to do nothing if our companies are sold off, taken advantage off because of Korean Court ruling.

-They have threaten to quit GSOMIA even though they benefit the most from it.

South Korea likes a weak, apologetic, humiliated Japan, ashamed of its history, always apologizing when Korea asked for one, always feel guilt, and always willing to pay Koreans. That's what their waiting for in New Suga, that's the boxes he needs to check..... 2 years later they will say it's not enough.

6 ( +11 / -5 )

Any dim light of hope is better than Abe’s grandfather-like approach.

-5 ( +3 / -8 )

Japan should just give them the finger if SK suddenly turns nice.

8 ( +11 / -3 )

So they want to make it appear as if everything is entirely Abe's fault

9 ( +10 / -1 )

I seriously doubt SK-Japan relations will improve that much. It's not just leaders but a significant percentage of the general public.


You obviously don't understand how wars work. Invading countries always need collaborators and Korea had plenty who were all too eager to sell their fellow countrymen as slaves, just like the Nazis had French collaborators.

5 ( +9 / -4 )

Mr.Suga maybe showing a bit more sincerely of apology to others but Japan still has a lot to go for reconciliation! You know the rightist like Abe were still holding the LDP!

-7 ( +3 / -10 )

Hopefully, Suga will make it clear from the beginning that there will be no further money for wartime crimes. As soon as it is brought up, stand up and say, “We’re done here.” Then walk out.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

I like how SK frames the situation as if its in Japan's best interest to mend ties and how its always most urgent too.

They made their bed and the world watch and more importantly industry watched how SK not once not twice but several times voided their contract agreements and went after assets from a corporate entity. These shenanigans have demoted SK from respectable to laughable and destroyed any trust they had.

5 ( +8 / -3 )

Iya Iya Iya. You guys just started to demand for an apology again.

Watch out for massive Japan bashing in next few months. The media wants to see how much they can bully suga around.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Oh Prime minister Sugar will mend ties with Korea, the fat one

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Tom & Jerry

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Judging by the first picture, I think Abe san and Mr Moon have been watching too may ABBA videos.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Fanta, cue the music.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I doubt Japan Korea relations will change significantly without some outside arm twisting by other nations like the US, Australia, Singapore and perhaps Canada.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Desert TortoiseSep. 16  10:12 pm JST

I doubt Japan Korea relations will change significantly without some outside arm twisting by other nations like the US, Australia, Singapore and perhaps Canada.

South Korea is the only party that needs arm twisting along with collective therapy. Japan has abided by all agreements, South Kora keeps breaking them. South Korea, while relying on the US for it;s own defense continues with behavior that undermines US strategic capability in the region.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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