Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition secured a majority of the upper house (with 245 seats) in Sunday’s election, but fell short of a two-thirds majority by four seats to push Abe’s plan to amend the constitution. Abe has assessed the election result as voters’ support for a constitutional reform to grant legal recognition to the Self Defense Forces, but with his coalition’s failure to retain a supermajority, he appears to be facing a tough road ahead over the next three years.
Still, on the back of winning the upper house election, the Abe administration is expected to keep a tough line on bilateral issues with South Korea. When asked during Sunday’s election coverage whether he intends to demand a summit with his South Korean counterpart, Abe said that Seoul’s response (to an issue of forced labor) goes against the 1965 treaty and that constructive discussions would not take place unless South Korea brings an appropriate response. In the meantime, South Korea’s presidential office denounced Abe’s remarks, urging Japan not to cross the line and stressing that Seoul has always presented appropriate responses.
Abe also said in a press conference Monday that the trade restrictions are a part of export control measures and that the biggest issue for now is whether promises between the two countries can be upheld. Then he went on to accuse Seoul of breaching the 1965 treaty and unilaterally disbanding a foundation established to resolve the “comfort women” issue by South Korea and Japan. It is more than worrisome to see the Japanese prime minister apparently take the lead in blasting Seoul at a sensitive time like this, when the leaders are advised to refrain from making unnecessary remarks.
Despite a barrage of criticism of South Korea by Japan, the world’s media outlets have turned their focus to Tokyo’s unfair imposition of export curbs. Bloomberg, in its editorial on Monday, deemed Japan’s move as a clear political retaliation and said that the first thing Abe should do now is “to extricate Japan from the foolish trade war he’s launched against neighboring South Korea.”
With the election wrapped up, this week is likely to serve as a watershed in the ongoing South Korea-Japan disputes to decide whether the trade row would escalate further or the two sides would be able to defuse the rising tensions. Seoul and Tokyo will explain their respective positions in the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s General Council meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile, Japan will finalize its procedures with Wednesday’s public hearing to determine whether to remove South Korea from its “white list” of trusted trade partners. A related bill is expected to be submitted by the end of the month at the earliest.
This is the worst-case scenario in which the bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo would hit the rock bottom where it cannot be recovered. Therefore, now is the time for the two sides to utilize both official and unofficial diplomatic channels to find a solution to the issues. The leaders of both countries should stop any moves to exploit national sentiment for political purposes. This coming week is a golden time that we can still change the worsening situation for the better.