Public perceptions, while they don’t drive foreign policy, have a moderating effect on the extents to which nations can relate with each other. Ever since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in Japan, perceptions of Japan have declined in its immediate neighborhood. Both China and South Korea in particular have grown noticeably cold towards Japan – not entirely without reason, as Abe has given them plenty of reason for concern. Abe’s decision to visit Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 added to concerns that he was out to revise Japan’s post-war pacifist stance.
A recent survey out of Seoul finds that Abe’s reputation is such that South Korean respondents ranked North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un above Abe in a survey of global leaders. The survey is the bi-monthly leader ratings survey from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. This is the first time that Abe has polled below Kim Jong-un. According to The Wall Street Journal, Kim Jong-un “had a rating of 1.3 on the survey’s 0-10 scale, compared with 1.1 for Mr. Abe. Of those questioned in Asan’s March 3 phone survey of 1,000 people, 61% gave Mr. Abe a zero rating, compared with 58% for Mr. Kim.” A couple months ago, Abe tied with Kim Jong-un – both fielding a 1.0 score. Barack Obama has consistently topped the ranking since September 2013, with Xi Jinping in close second.
Since the survey is conducted bimonthly, it is particularly sensitive to ebbs and flows in South Korea’s relations with other countries. In recent weeks, the South and the North held rare high-level talks without preconditions and held reunions for families split up by the Korean War armistice.
These events don’t necessarily portend a longer-term improvement in inter-Korean relations, as North Korea has been known to suddenly provoke. Despite this apparent rapprochement, the North did provoke the South twice last week with missile launches off its eastern coast and a naval incursion across the Northern Limit Line (the maritime extension of the demilitarized zone across the 38th parallel). The North also heavily protested the annual South Korean-U.S. military exercises.
The ever-so-slight improvement in the perception of Kim Jong-un in the South might also be due to a renewed push by South Korean President Park Geun-hye towards Korean reunification. Although her vision for reunification is strictly symbolic at this stage, combined with high-level talks and the family reunions, it appears to be setting the two Koreas on a positive trajectory. Reunification will be set back by the massive cost of assimilation for the South, whose economy is over 40 times as large as that of the North’s, and due to a lack of interest among South Korean youth.
Abe’s impact on Japan’s image in South Korea and China can’t be overstated. Despite other prominent voices in Japan calling for Abe to moderate his approach to Japanese history and international relations, the decline in Japan’s perception in its immediate neighborhood is relentless. The decline in South Korea-Japan relations has not yet spurred the United States to make any attempts at forging better ties. Mediating between its allies in Northeast Asia is a risky proposition for the United States. When President Obama visits both Tokyo and Seoul in April, it is likely that he will broach the topic of South Korea-Japan relations with both President Park and Prime Minister Abe in private. The U.S. alliance system can of course persist even if South Koreans despise Abe, but tensions between allies can have unexpected consequences.