Despite ongoing difficulties in the Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will travel to PyeongChang next month for the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Abe confirmed on Wednesday that he would attend the opening ceremony of the games on February 9. “If circumstances allow, I am thinking of attending the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics,” Abe told reporters gathered at his office.
His attendance had been in doubt due to the ongoing spat with the South Korean government led by President Moon Jae-in over a 2015 agreement between their two countries on Imperial Japan’s use of Korean sex slaves (euphemistically dubbed “comfort women”) during World War II. Abe said that he would seek to “firmly convey Japan’s position” on the issue while in South Korea.
In 2015, South Korea, which was then led by the conservative government of President Park Geun-hye, who has since been impeached and imprisoned after an influence-peddling scandal, inked an agreement with the Japanese government to settle the dispute between the two countries.
The 2015 agreement, which both governments described as “final and irreversible,” was meant to be face-saving for both countries. Japan would apologize for the Imperial Japanese Army’s use of wartime sex slaves from South Korea and make a one-time payment to South Korea with the understanding that the issue would be forever shelved; the South Korean government agreed despite insufficient public support.
Signs of a fraying agreement were apparent a year into the agreement’s implementation, as South Korean activists continued to pressure the Japanese government. In early 2017, Japan withdrew its ambassador from South Korea after a new “comfort women” statue was erected outside Japan’s consulate in Busan. Park’s impeachment in December 2016 further threw the legitimacy of the deal into question.
The Moon government took a nuanced position on the status of the agreement earlier this month, finding it both to be a valid agreement between Japan and South Korea, but also “defective.” Japan immediately protested the description of the agreement, seeing it as an attempt by South Korea to relitigate the issue.
While Abe’s decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics is generally a sign of Japanese interest in keeping the often-rocky bilateral relationship stable as concerns persist over North Korea, there remains considerable space for the “comfort women” issue to flare up.
If Abe is to make a statement on the issue in South Korea, as reports suggest, there could be serious public backlash. The Japanese prime minister does not enjoy public support in South Korea and anything but an apology from Abe would not only cause a political outcry, but potentially even harm the Moon government’s public standing. (Moon has otherwise enjoyed high approval ratings, even as the threat from North Korea rapidly intensified after his election victory.)
Adding to the precariousness of Abe’s upcoming visit to South Korea, Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review reports that Abe’s decision to travel to PyeongChang was heavily influenced by the United States. Washington has, with good reason, avoided trying to actively mediate between Seoul and Tokyo — each of whom are treaty-bound allies with the United States.
Should Abe’s visit to South Korea go poorly and Japan-South Korea relations take a longer-term hit as a result, the prospects of short-term trilateral cooperation on North Korea, for example, could be all the worse off. There’s a chance, of course, that Abe’s visit will ultimately be successful, but the risks of a longer term souring in Japan-South Korea ties are very real.