Japanese Prime Minster Abe Shinzo’s resignation has taken many by surprise, including the Moon administration in South Korea. In its response to the sudden news, the Blue House issued a statement saying, “We regret the sudden resignation announcement by Prime Minister Abe, who has long played many roles for the development of South Korea-Japan relations.” The statement added that the Blue House looked forward to promoting friendly ties with his successor.
While this positive characterization of Abe’s contributions to bilateral relations and optimism is undoubtedly forward-looking, it stands in sharp contrast to the state of relations during the nearly eight years of his time in office.
South Korea-Japan ties during Abe’s tenure can probably best be described as persistent lows, punctuated by what have proved to be mostly ephemeral highs. Of course, the bilateral relationship was fraught with challenges long before Abe. Historical issues stemming from Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 have been a constant source of tension in the relationship, with the Japanese often believing their efforts to make amends are enough while South Koreans feeling they are insufficient or even contradictory. Abe’s right-wing nationalist leanings have helped to either re-ignite or add fuel to the fire of these historical disputes, clashing much more with the current progressive administration in Seoul.
Although Abe was briefly prime minister from 2006 to 2007, he will be best remembered for his second stint on the job starting in 2012. One of his first major controversies with Seoul was his December 2013 visit to Yakusune shrine, which honors, among other Japanese war dead, Class A war criminals from World War II. Abe claimed his visit to the shrine was an anti-war gesture in a private capacity, but Seoul viewed this as an insensitive and provocative act, summoning the Japanese ambassador to protest the move. Although he has not personally returned to the shrine since, Abe’s annual ritual offerings and visits to Yakusune by other members of his government has unsettled many South Koreans.
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August 2015, Abe tried to emphasize his country’s accountability for past wrongdoings. In speaking about Japan’s aggression, which led to the war, he said, “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” However, this rang hollow to many South Koreans who saw this as falling short of an apology. There were also inconsistencies elsewhere, such as the lack of a resolution on forced wartime labor and how events were portrayed in Japanese history books.
The biggest breakthrough in the relationship came in December 2015 with the “comfort women” deal. During World War II the Japanese government pressed thousands of Korean women to work as sex slaves, which have come to be known as “comfort women.” Despite Japanese efforts to overcome the legacy of this issue, including a 1993 apology by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei and a 1995 private fund for victims, many South Koreans – including some surviving “comfort women” themselves – did not view these as adequate enough. The 2015 agreement claimed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue through an apology from Abe and a 10 billion won ($8.3 million) contribution to a fund for the aging “comfort women.” A year later, both sides built on this diplomatic momentum with the signing of a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), seen to be a foundation to advance security ties.
But, with the precipitous fall of the conservative South Korean President Park Geun-hye in late 2016 and early 2017 followed by the election of progressive candidate Moon Jae-in, these successes proved to be a house of cards. The “comfort women” agreement was widely panned in South Korea, with much of the public viewing it as a politically expedient move by what proved to be a corrupt leader. Moon undertook a months-long process of reviewing the agreement, culminating in a January 2018 decision not to renegotiate the deal, though he said it did not resolve the “comfort women” issue. For his part, Abe was quoted as claiming Tokyo would not move “even by a millimeter” on the agreement.
Much as 2015 was a milestone year for improved ties between Seoul and Tokyo, 2018 saw the beginnings of their recent struggles. In November, the Moon administration decided to disband the 2015 fund at the behest of victims and their advocates, who wanted official reparations and a declaration of legal, not just humanitarian, responsibility from Japan. Around the same time the South Korean Supreme Court issued two separate rulings ordering Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nippon Steel, and Sumitomo Metal to compensate South Koreans forced into labor during World War II. Abe did not respond positively to either the disbanding of the fund or the court rulings, but his response to the latter helped to lock in a downward spiral in the relationship.
Tokyo’s tightening of export controls on vital components for Seoul’s lucrative semiconductor industry last summer has been widely attributed to the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings. Japan’s Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry cited “a considerable loss of trust” between the countries in its decision, but did not mention the forced labor issue by name. Although there is no evidence to suggest Tokyo actually restricted the sale of these components, the move sparked sweeping anti-Japanese boycotts in South Korea. Seoul was also poised to withdraw from GSOMIA, but decided against that step at the last minute largely due to pressure from Washington. In turn, Japan eased some of its new export restrictions in the lead-up to a meeting between Abe and Moon in December.
Of course, Abe alone cannot be held responsible for the challenges in South Korea-Japan relations throughout his tenure. But, in South Korea, it seems he will be remembered as being too obstinate at best, or insensitive and inflammatory at worst. Throughout his time in office, Abe has consistently received an overwhelmingly negative approval rating from South Koreans, even polling below North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent years and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the height of China’s economic retaliation over the deployment of the THAAD missile defense battery. As he prepares to return to private life later this month, Abe is leaving behind crucial unfinished business that will shape the direction of the bilateral relationship for years to come.
Tensions are primed to spike again as Nippon Steel filed an appeal in August against the Supreme Court decision. Also in the works is South Korea’s request for a WTO panel to settle the dispute over Japanese export controls.
The front-runner to succeed Abe is Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, seen as someone who can provide continuity amid the tumultuous pandemic. By itself, the opportunity for a change in leadership could be a useful pretext to stem the deterioration of relations, but Suga may also bring along some extra value. According to Japan analyst Tobias Harris, Suga was staunchly against Abe’s 2013 visit to Yasukuni and was a key player in promoting Japan’s global trade leadership. Both could be good signs for Seoul considering the historical and trade issues now at the forefront of the relationship. Further, in a news conference this week Suga stated he was willing to meet with Kim Jong Un without preconditions, which was surely received well by the pro-engagement Moon administration.
Whatever happens next for Seoul and Tokyo will still surely fall under Abe’s shadow, but neither possible direction bodes well for his legacy in South Korea. If relations improve, he is likely to be held even more personally accountable for the recent challenges in the relationship. If they continue to falter, many critics will draw a straight line back to his government. As Abe collects accolades for his work elsewhere, the nicest thing he could realistically hope to hear from South Koreans is “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”