“We offer condolences and wish him a fast recovery,” said a member of the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae immediately after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement of resignation last week. “We will continue to work with a new prime minister and Cabinet to strengthen bilateral cooperation.” These messages from Cheong Wa Dae came out about 10 minutes before the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the ministry was passive, saying that there isn’t much to discuss a foreign country’s internal affairs, the presidential office led the response.
The reaction of the presidential office mentioning the next prime minister immediately following Prime Minister Abe’s resignation announcement reveals how South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his advisors view Japan, which is that the current state of South Korea-Japan relations – considered to be the worst since the two countries established diplomatic ties – has been entirely caused by the prime minister. This is why those in the South Korean government expressed expectations that whoever to be appointed as the next prime minister will be better than Abe.
It is true that the worsening of the bilateral relations is related to the conservative shift of Japan accelerated by the appointment of Prime Minister Abe. From historical revisionism, which was prompted by an investigation into the Kono Statement containing apology to Japanese Military Sexual Slavery, to constitutional reform enabling the country to engage in wars, the right-wing line of the prime minister has driven the bilateral relations into tensions and conflicts. However, is it really all his fault?
The Moon Jae-in administration practically scrapped the agreement on Japanese Military Sexual Slavery and let the relations get worse without making any efforts since the Supreme Court’s ruling on compensation for forced labor by Japan. On top of that, the ruling party’s political frame of removing pro-Japanese figures was like pouring oil on the fire, which is why some said the combination of President Moon and Prime Minister Abe cannot produce any solutions between South Korea and Japan.
Expecting a radical change simply because one party is stepping down would be premature optimism. Even if a pro-Korean figure is appointed as the next prime minister, it will be unlikely that Japan’s previous stance will change as long as the country’s ruling party will remain in place.
However, new national leadership will bring changes in the overall atmosphere and may present a turning point for the South Korea-Japan relations tainted with emotional quarrels. Japan is also paying attention to the appointment of a new Japan-savvy floor leader of South Korea’s ruling party. Now is the time for South Korea to move Japan’s heart with proactive diplomacy.