Japanese PM unlikely to be committed to improving ties with Korea: experts
By Kang Seung-woo
New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's recent moves are raising doubts over whether he is committed to getting frayed ties with Korea back on track, with his latest act of sending an offering to a controversial shrine bringing heavy criticism from Seoul which contends it glorifies Tokyo's militaristic past.
|Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. / Yonhap|
Suga sent a "masakaki" tree to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Saturday, to celebrate its annual autumn festival. It was the first time that Suga made such an offering since he took office in September. The shrine houses the remains of 14 Class A war criminals from World War II, so visits or offerings by Japanese government officials often become a source of tension between Japan and neighboring countries including Korea and China that view it as a symbol of Japan's past imperialism.
While in office, Abe visited the memorial once in 2013, and considering the possible backlash from neighboring countries, he then sent offerings instead. However, days after his resignation last month due to health problems, Abe visited the shrine, leading Seoul to issue a formal statement of regret.
Suga's sending of an offering also prompted the Korean government to issue another such statement.
"We express deep regrets that the Japanese government and parliamentary leaders sent offerings again to the Yasukuni Shrine that glorifies Japan's history of wars of invasion and houses war criminals," the Korean foreign ministry said in the statement, Saturday.
"Our government strongly calls on responsible Japanese leaders to respond to calls for the future-oriented development of Korea-Japan relations by facing up squarely to history and humbly reflecting on and genuinely atoning for past history through actions on the occasion of the launch of the new Cabinet."
Political parties also denounced Suga's offering in concert.
"The offering was an act of hurting neighboring countries in Northeast Asia. We express deep frustration and regret," said Rep. Choi In-ho, a spokesman for the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK).
"We are concerned that Suga may take Abe's ill-advised direction of foreign policy. Without reflecting on its past wrongdoings, Japan will not gain trust from its neighboring countries."
Yoon Hee-seok, a spokesman for the main opposition People Power Party, said, "The Yasukuni offering is not helpful in relations between Korea and Japan at all. Japan needs to ponder what it has to do for Northeast Asia peace."
Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said the Suga administration was basically an extension of Abe's government.
"Suga was Abe's chief Cabinet secretary for eight years and Abe supported Suga into the premiership. In that respect, he cannot drift away from his predecessor," Park said, adding that the new prime minister's support base was made up of right-wingers and revisionists who also approved of Abe.
"The offering is in line with Suga succeeding Abe."
Before the offering, Suga brought criticism here following reports from Japanese media that he would refuse to attend an annual trilateral meeting of Korea, Japan and China, which was scheduled to be held here later this year, unless the Korean government took appropriate measures to resolve their conflict over wartime forced labor ― the biggest sticking point to Korea-Japan rapprochement.
Currently, the procedure to liquidate the Korean assets of Nippon Steel, which benefited from the use of forced labor before and during World War II, is underway based on the Korean Supreme Court's order in October 2018 for Nippon to pay 100 million won ($87,000) in compensation to each of four surviving Korean victims of forced labor practices. In response, the company has filed an appeal against the seizure of its assets, and the Japanese government has threatened to retaliate against Korea in the event of the court-ordered liquidation.
As to the reports of Suga's trilateral meeting boycott, the Korean government has only said it was talking with the neighboring countries about the meeting.
Amid the chilled relations between Seoul and Tokyo, DPK Chairman Rep. Lee Nak-yon held a closed-door meeting in Seoul with Takeo Kawamura, a lawmaker of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party who is a close aide to Suga. Both politicians are members of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, a group of lawmakers of the two nations that promotes better ties, and Kawamura's visit to Korea came before the Korean members of the union's planned visit to Japan next month.
Lee and Kawamura discussed pending bilateral issues, including the forced labor matter.
"Lee needs to do something to improve bilateral ties given he is regarded as a politician who seeks to promote friendly relations with Japan," Park said, adding that he had built up an extensive network with Japanese government officials and politicians.
"Making no efforts to solve the issue before the liquidation is like waiting for a ticking time bomb to explode. To stop this, someone has to step up and Lee is a fit for the job."