Japan’s ruling party victory, Abe’s death could slow progress on Tokyo ties

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said the government would maintain its efforts to reset relations, and to carefully watch over the change of events in Japan.

Jo He-rim

Jo He-rim

The Korea Herald


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is also the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, places a paper flower next to the name of an LDP candidate who has won a seat in the House of Councilors election at the LDP headquarters in Tokyo, Japan on Sunday. (Reuters-Yonhap)

July 12, 2022

SEOUL – The recent turn of events in Japan — the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling party winning the majority of seats in the upper house — could delay efforts to resolve bilateral relations with South Korea, experts here said on Monday.

The former premier died on Friday after a lone gunman shot him while he was delivering a campaign speech on a street in the city of Nara in central Japan.

As the country mourned the death of a prominent political leader, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which Abe led until he resigned in 2020, gained a sweeping victory in Sunday’s election to garner a majority in the upper house of parliament.

Due to this series of events, the efforts of the governments of Seoul and Tokyo to resolve their long-strained ties will likely be pushed back, according to experts here.

“The bilateral relations may not worsen (because of Abe’s death and the result of the election), but it would likely be pushed down in Japan’s list of priorities,” Choi Eun-mi, a Japan expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told The Korea Herald.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said the government would maintain its efforts to reset relations with Japan, and to carefully watch over the change of events in Japan.

“We will closely monitor the situation in Japan. Japan and South Korea are close neighbors sharing the values of democracy and market economy, and Japan is an important partner for cooperation, so we will be consistent to make efforts to improve the bilateral ties,” Park said during a press conference on Monday.

While the foreign ministry has been coordinating with the Japanese government on Park’s first trip to Tokyo in mid-July, the date is likely be pushed back, as the presidential office is considering sending a delegation led by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo to Japan this week.


South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin writes a funeral message as he pays respect to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Japanese embassy’s public information and cultural center in Seoul. (Yonhap)


Domestic politics to overshadow Seoul ties

The absence of Abe, a pivotal figure representing the hardline conservative faction within Japan’s ruling LDP, may cause some “political strife” among the party cliques competing for dominance, according to one of Choi’s three potential prospects. In this case, the Fumio Kishida administration may not want to make any risky moves with South Korea to further stir up domestic politics, Choi said.

It is also possible that hardline conservatives within the ruling party may step up to carry out the political tasks that Abe had pushed for, upholding them as the “dying will” of the late prime minister.

Abe fiercely advocated for a stronger military to allow its Self-Defense Forces to fight overseas and attempted to amend the country’s pacifist constitution to remove the article banning the country from using war as a means of settling international disputes.

If Abe’s support base pushes for Constitutional reform, it would likely face backlash from South Korea, which suffered from brutal repressions during Japan’s colonization from 1910 to 1945.

Prime Minister Kishida, who also leads the LDP, is primarily considered a moderate figure and could also seek to grow his presence that was largely overshadowed by Abe. This would play more in favor of Korea, Choi said, as Kishida has noted the need to reset the relationship with South Korea, as the ties between the two countries have been at their worst due to differences over issues stemming from their shared history.

From another perspective, there may not be a dramatic change in the bilateral relations between Korea and Japan following the assassination and the election result, Jin Chang-soo, Director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Sejong Institute, said.

“The bilateral ties of the two countries would likely stay the same, with the differences remaining unsolved,” Jin told The Korea Herald.

“A mourning period (for Abe) will last for the next couple of months in Japan, and I do not expect the Korean government to make such dramatic proposals to change the relationship,” Jin said.

“Same for Kishida. He will be tasked with containing disputes that may occur among the different factions within the LDP. He would not want the members of Abe’s faction to turn their backs on him.”

Even while Abe’s influence endures, it will still not be easy for Japan to enact Constitutional reform, despite the LDP having a majority of seats in the upper house, Jin said.

While there could be a movement to realize Abe’s policies, the absence of the prime minister will hinder the efforts.

“It will be challenging as they not only have to discuss the direction and the specific details of the reform, but they also have to execute the changes,” Jin said.

”Abe was leading the movement, but with him gone, those with different beliefs may speak out.”

South Korea and Japan have been at odds as the two sides hold different views toward Japanese atrocities stretching back to its colonial occupation of Korea.

Among the major sticking points include a South Korean top court’s 2018 ruling ordering the Japanese companies that coerced Koreans into labor during wartime to provide compensation to the victims.

Their gap in understanding of the 1965 agreement signed to establish diplomatic relations has been a continued source of dispute. The Japanese government claims all arguments stemming from the annexation of the Korean Peninsula were settled through the accord, but the Korean government views the claim as invalid since it sees the annexation itself was illegal.

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