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Abe Government Fails in South Korea Diplomacy

SNA (Tokyo) — Make no mistake: the decision by the Abe government to return Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine to Seoul and Consul-General Yasuhiro Morimoto to Busan represents a total failure of Japan’s current approach to diplomatic relations with its closest neighbor, South Korea. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga will not admit that failure publicly, but he and the prime minister almost certainly understand it privately.

Like the recent Moritomo Gakuen Scandal, this debacle was an entirely self-inflicted wound caused by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s close alliance with, and personal proclivity towards, Japanese rightwing ideology. There are probably few, if any, other postwar Japanese prime ministers who would have raised the bilateral disagreement over historical memory and the wartime Comfort Women to the very top tier of the nation’s diplomatic relationship with South Korea.

After all, it is not as if Japan and South Korea don’t have far more impactful issues to deal with, such as the threat of North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons, enhancing economic links, and finding common ground on how best to respond to the growing power of China. But Prime Minister Abe continues to treat the nation’s diplomacy as corollary to his own family history: the perceived need to restore Japan’s “honor” by altering the mainstream global narrative about Imperial Japan, and thus to vindicate his revered grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi.

Thus for almost three months Abe and his close circle at the Kantei have resisted repeated calls over a period of many weeks by more pragmatic conservatives like Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai to return the ambassador to his post in Seoul quickly.

By all appearances, Prime Minister Abe and his aides believed that they could pressure South Korea into sticking by the terms of the December 2015 Comfort Women agreement they had negotiated with the now-collapsed Park Geun-Hye government.

If they had open eyes, it shouldn’t have been difficult to perceive that South Korea has been going through a very painful period in their domestic history in which there was a remarkable vacuum of political authority at the top of the system. The bilateral Comfort Women agreement is unpopular with the South Korean public, and so neither the collapsing Park regime, nor the transitional government, nor the rising liberal challengers have been in a position to embrace the policy that Tokyo demands.

The Abe government’s obsessive insistence that South Korea stick to the text of the unpopular agreement only served to expose the petty, narrow-gauge of Tokyo’s true attitudes towards their former colony.

And so, the three-month “lesson” that the Abe regime tried to teach to a South Korea that was fully absorbed with their own major political crisis was a complete and, frankly, predictable failure, having achieved none of its objectives.

Foreign Minister Kishida explained the timing of the decision to return Ambassador Nagamine now as related to the need to collect information and to effectively represent Japan’s interests as South Korea proceeds through its important period of political transition.

Of course, that was equally as true two months ago as it is today.

One might be tempted to argue that there was one arena in which Abe’s South Korea diplomatic policy did succeed: It may have served to shore up his domestic rightwing political base.

However, even on that account the policy is now a failure. The vociferous nationalists that such a stance would appeal to will see today’s return of the ambassador to Seoul as a weak-kneed capitulation, leaving the Comfort Women statues in place in front of the Japanese diplomatic missions in Seoul and Busan. For that particular audience, Abe has not done nearly enough for the their cause, and has unforgivably signaled Japan’s weakness.

None of this is likely to have a significant impact on Prime Minister Abe’s overall domestic political standing. Most of the newspapers will not dwell for very long on how wrongheaded and counterproductive this diplomatic strategy has been, most of the Japanese public is not deeply engaged with these issues, and, as usual, the opposition parties are too weak and disunited to make their limited criticisms heard.