The ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has elected Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide as their new party leader. It was a landslide win, sweeping 70% of votes. Suga will be sworn in as the 99th prime minister of Japan after passing the vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Despite the first shift in leadership in eight years, Japan’s policy towards Korea is unlikely to change. Mr. Suga, who has been considered as Abe’s mouthpiece during his two years in office, openly declared to succeed the Abe administration, and the remainder of his term at the top office is only a year. After Abe stepped down on August 28, the bigwigs of major factions within the LDP have drummed up Mr. Suga as a figure who will wade through the crisis with consistent policy execution.
Traditionally, Japan’s prime ministers have put its ties with Washington at the heart of foreign relations while also putting emphasis on neighboring countries such as China and Korea, albeit in principle. Suga won’t be an exception. Unlike his predecessor who was ideologically charged, Mr. Suga is known to be a realistic strategist. When Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine in December 2013, for his supporters, Suga, who was Abe’s closet aide, talked him out of the move, urging him to focus on the economy instead. Pundits in Tokyo speculate that the newly elected LDP leader will aim to strength his regime through early general elections.
“There are many issues to tackle with neighboring countries - China and Korea, but I will pursue strategic contact instead of choosing only one out of two,” said Suga in a recent debate, hinting at some room for the improvement of Korea-Japan relations. Ignoring a neighboring country and denying its history won’t serve any strategy interest for either of the countries. This journalist hopes that Mr. Suga will escape Abe’s shadow and open up a new horizon for the two neighbors’ future considering the nations are considered to be going through the worst period of bilateral relations in recent history.
The Korean government is also pinning hopes on him. In fact, many officials in Seoul voice the opinion that no matter who is taking office, he should be better than Abe. But Seoul must make the effort if it wants to leverage the power shift in Japan as turning point of its relationship with Tokyo. This time, the Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit will be chaired by Seoul. That might be the first time Mr. Suga will have made his first official visit to Seoul, COVID-19 permitting. By learning our lesson from the failure with Abe, Seoul must find a way out of the worst relations with Tokyo since war.
Young-A Soh firstname.lastname@example.org