08.10.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the Future of Japan-ROK Relations


On September 29, 2021, former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was elected chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. In the second round of voting, he won a landslide victory over the Minister for Administrative Reform Taro Kono by gaining 257 votes against 170. The election of a new chairman took place due to the expiration of the powers of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who was appointed to this post last year after the sudden resignation of Shinzo Abe.

On October 4, the lower house of the Japanese parliament elected Fumio Kishida by a majority vote to the post of the new, hundredth Prime Minister of the country. According to the voting results, Kishida received 311 out of 458 votes.

Fumio Kishida, 64, is known as a serious politician who previously served as Minister of Defense, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs. During the administration of Shinzo Abe, he worked as Foreign Minister for more than four years, and his signature appears on the agreement signed in December 2015 between the Republic of Korea and Japan on the issue of victims of sexual slavery. It is claimed that it was Kishida who was also able to persuade Abe to add an expression about a “sense of responsibility” to the agreement.

Japan has fulfilled its obligations under the agreement by apologizing and setting up a government-funded foundation to indemnify victims. However, thanks to the efforts of “patriotic NGOs”, which after “closing the issue of comfort women” would have remained without work and state funding, the agreement was branded as “adopted without the consent of the victims” and without taking into account the opinion of the people. And when Moon, then the head of the opposition, came to power in 2017, this stance was supported by official Seoul. Shortly after President Moon Jae-in took office, Seoul decided to dissolve the foundation, effectively breaking up the agreement.

The appointment of the new leader of Japan was welcomed with duty greetings in the ROK. According to the representative of the administration of President Moon, the ROK Government is ready to cooperate with the new government of Japan under the leadership of Fumio Kishida for the sake of building relations aimed at the future. Yoshihide Suga, who was the “voice of Abe” even before his premiership, had a negative attitude towards dialogue with South Korea, thereby refusing to hold any high-level meetings with President Moon Jae-in, and such a wish text hints at a request for a summit.

The chairman of the ruling Democratic Party, Song Yong-gil, congratulated Fumio Kishida on his victory and immediately urged the new Prime Minister to avoid diplomatic mistakes, such as visiting Yasukuni Shrine.

The leader of the Democrats called on the new administration to abandon the political course of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and develop a new position aimed at improving relations between Seoul and Tokyo and strengthening bilateral ties.

Chairman of SK Group and the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry Choi Tae-won sent a letter to Fumio Kishida, in which he expressed hope that Seoul and Tokyo will make efforts to improve relations, and businessmen of both countries will expand cooperation. The ROK and Japan are geographically close neighbors and trade and economic partners, the letter says, and the two countries will overcome the existing problems by studying each other’s strengths.

The ROK media write that “expectations are growing in Japan that the new leader will be able to find a breakthrough in the frozen relations between Seoul and Tokyo,” which “are at the lowest level since 1965,” when the countries established diplomatic relations. The crisis, we recall, began after the local Supreme Court had ruled in 2018 that Japanese companies engaged in forced labor during wartime should pay compensation to the plaintiffs. In response, Japan imposed restrictions on the exports of certain essential goods, which turned into a trade war.

Conservative newspapers believe that “a change of leadership will make it possible to restore frozen relations between Korea and Japan,” at a time when Seoul and Tokyo need to stick together as champions of free democracy and a market economy in the fight “against China’s muscle-building in Northeast Asia and the ever-growing nuclear potential of North Korea.” “First of all, Kishida must agree to a summit meeting with Moon after taking office. Both sides should understand and respect each other, and not show an emotional and hostile approach. As for the controversy about the past, Tokyo should sincerely appreciate the excruciating pain of Korean victims, be they sex slaves or forced laborers, during the Pacific War instead of expressing apologies or regret in rhetoric. The endless battle over the sincerity of apologies must stop if the two countries really want to move forward.” Then, Korea and Japan must first eliminate unnecessary obstacles in economic cooperation. For example, the two countries continue to provide two-week isolation of each other’s traders in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They should do away with red tape, as this measure hinders smooth economic exchange, and deal with disruptions in global supply chains amid the intensifying confrontation between the US and China. In addition, Seoul and Tokyo should normalize the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

But anti-Japanese sentiment remains one of the pillars of South Korean ideology. And although the judicial system of the ROK begins to send contradictory signals, the Daejeon District Court recently ordered the Japanese company Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to sell all its assets in the ROK to compensate for moral damage to South Koreans forced to work for it during World War II.  Despite the fact that even President Moon tried to declare during the New Year’s press conference that “it would be undesirable for bilateral ties,” and the prospect of proving the succession of the current Mitsubishi Heavy Industries from Mitsubishi of back then (zaibatsu were officially abolished in 1945) in international arbitration seems rather vague.

As we can see, by the resumption of relations, Seoul understands a situation in which Japan, for some unknown reason, will make unilateral concessions: “Tokyo should go beyond repeated calls to Seoul to offer a solution first.” Will Kishida do it? Probably not.

Kishida advocates Japan’s close alliance with the United States and strong partnerships with other like-minded countries around the world in part to counter China’s growing influence and the threat from North Korea. However, with regard to the 2015 agreement, Kishida continues to reasonably claim that “Japan carried out what it should do regarding the issue and the ball is now in Seoul’s court.” In his opinion, the future for the two countries will not be open unless Seoul abides by international law. Also, Kishida does not consider it necessary to make additional apologies for the actions committed by Japan during World War II.  Such an ideological stance leaves very little room for a shift to the South Korean side. In addition, the new Prime Minister faces a bunch of more important domestic problems that need to be focused on before resolving the issue with Korea, at least the fight against the pandemic.

We should rather expect that Seoul will begin to shift. First, Moon’s presidential term will end in May 2022, and if a lesser populist comes to power, relations may improve. Secondly, there is no winner in the trade war. Thirdly, the hostility of ordinary citizens towards each other is weakening. In a joint survey, more than half of the residents of the two countries (54.8% in Japan and 84.7% in Korea) indicated the need to improve ties.

But even this is likely to take time, so no transition from tension to cooperation is expected in the near future.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.