Abe Ruined the Most Important Democratic Relationship in Asia

The outgoing Japanese prime minister’s ultranationalism destroyed ties with South Korea.

An anti-Japan rally in Seoul
A South Korean protester attaches fake money on a picture of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an anti-Japan rally outside the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 5, 2019. Jeon Yeon-je/AP via Getty Images

The reviews of the foreign policy of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced his resignation on Aug. 28 citing health reasons, have been largely positive. The overall assessment is that Abe was a “pragmatic realist,” strengthening the alliance with the United States, finding new partnerships with rising powers like Australia and India, promoting free trade and the liberal order, and striking a more assertive and influential posture on the international stage. But such assessments miss one critical point: Abe took Japan’s relationship with South Korea, one of Japan’s most important security and trade partners, and drove it into a ditch for reasons neither realistic nor pragmatic.

In a Gallup Korea poll from November 2019, Abe’s favorability among the South Korean public clocked in at miserable 3 percent, lower than Russia’s Vladimir Putin (17 percent), China’s Xi Jinping (15 percent), and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (9 percent). To be sure, Abe does not deserve a lower favorability rating than Putin, Xi, or Kim, irrespective of his faults. Abe’s low favorability is also not entirely his fault; rather, in no small part, it is a reflection of the fact that he interacted mostly with former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the radioactively unpopular leader who was impeached and removed from office in 2017. Nevertheless, it remains true that Abe took a thriving relationship, if one still haunted by historical issues, and left it in pieces.

In the 1990s, the South Korea-Japan relationship began improving significantly as the Seoul government transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy, and Japan’s political climate became more liberal. In 1993, Japan recognized and apologized to the so-called comfort women, the Korean military sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The two countries opened the pop culture markets for each other, with South Korea lifting a previous ban on Japanese movies, TV, and music, leading to a common pop culture built on anime and K-pop. The 2010 statement by liberal Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan commemorating the centennial of Japan’s annexation of Korea received high marks from South Koreans as he expressed the desire to “face history with sincerity.” Buoyed by this gradual process of reconciliation and cultural exchange, South Korea and Japan formed a tightly knit trade relationship: They are each other’s third-largest trading partners, behind only China and the United States.

Pragmatic realism for Japan’s foreign policy would have meant nurturing this relationship and forming an even stronger bond with its closest neighboring liberal democracy, particularly in the face of nuclear North Korea and an increasingly illiberal China. Unfortunately, however, Abe did the opposite. When it came to South Korea, Abe rarely strayed from being an ideologue committed to right-wing nationalism, with revisionist views on Imperial Japan’s colonial legacy. The result is that a relationship that was near its peak in 2012 is now at a nadir since Japan and South Korea normalized their diplomatic relationship in 1965.

Abe’s revisionism is not exactly a secret. He has expressed admiration for his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was imprisoned after World War II on the charges of being a Class A war criminal. Abe was a special advisor to the group Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), which claims Imperial Japan should be lauded for liberating Asia from Western colonial powers, the Tokyo war crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and war crimes such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937 were exaggerated or fabricated. (In 2014, 15 out of 18 cabinet members in the Abe administration were Nippon Kaigi members.)

In 2007, during his brief first stint as prime minister, Abe personally disavowed the 1993 Kono Statement that apologized to the World War II-era victims of systematic sexual abuse by the Japanese army, dishonestly claiming a lack of evidence. When Kan made the centennial speech accepting responsibility for Imperial Japan’s annexation of Korea, Abe yelled, “Idiot!” at Kan on live television. Upon taking office again in 2012, Abe wasted no time in showing the world where he stood on the history issues: He openly flirted with officially retracting the 1993 apology to the so-called comfort women and visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war criminals, over strong criticisms from both South Korea and the United States.

The 2015 agreement regarding comfort women is sometimes cited as showing Abe’s pragmatism. Under strong pressure from the Obama administration in the United States, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement in which Japan would use its government budget to fund a foundation to assist the former military sex slaves. But the agreement, made with Park Geun-hye, whom most of the South Korean public now scorns, is less than meets the eye. Because no former victims were consulted in the negotiation leading up to the agreement, it did not reflect any of their long-standing demands, such as recognition of the Imperial Japanese Army’s direct involvement in establishing rape stations on the front lines. (Indeed, soon after the agreement was announced, Abe repeated his stance in his address to Japan’s legislature that the comfort women system was not a war crime and the agreement was not a recognition as such.) In an undisclosed side deal, the Abe administration demanded the Park administration stop using the term “sex slaves” to describe the victims, and that it relocate the memorial statue to them currently placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Taken together, the 2015 agreement resembles less an attempt for reconciliation and more a coercive nondisclosure agreement against victims of horrendous sexual assault that says: Here’s the money, now shut up.

All of this drove South Korea-Japan relations to the brink, and then Abe’s most egregious misstep marched the relationship off the cliff. In order to settle the historical score, he weaponized the two countries’ trade relationship. In October 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court issued the long-delayed opinion that Japanese corporations that used slave labor from Korea during World War II must pay reparations to surviving slave laborers. (The delay was in part because since 2013, Japan’s foreign ministry had been issuing barely disguised threats for the South Korean government to “respond appropriately” to the pending case, and the quasi-authoritarian Park Geun-hye government acquiesced and pressured the Supreme Court to delay the ruling in contravention of the most basic principles of separation of powers.)

In response to the court’s opinion—which ordered the reparation of $89,000, a negligible amount for Japan’s largest corporations—Abe declared a trade war. The Abe administration announced export control against South Korea for three critical chemicals used in high-end display and semiconductor manufacturing, immediately after the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in which the prime minister called for a free and fair trade. When confronted with the criticism that Japan was using trade for political purposes, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (the front-runner to be the next prime minister) vaguely cited national security concerns as the reason for the export control, even as he dangled the idea that South Korea “did not offer a satisfactory solution over the issue of former workers.” So flimsy was the justification that some experts observing the issue noted that Japanese officials “haven’t provided any evidence” and “have not named companies or said how supplies may have been mismanaged.” Others went further, calling Tokyo’s excuse “duplicitous” and saying it was behaving “spuriously.”

Adding insult to injury, Abe’s trade war did not even achieve the intended result. South Korea’s high-tech companies simply carried on with domestically sourced chemicals. In some cases, South Korean conglomerates even convinced Japanese companies to open new factories in the country, as was the case with Tokyo Ohka Kogyo Co., which began producing the chemical product photoresist in a new factory near Seoul to supply Samsung Electronics. Regardless of its effectiveness, Abe’s trade war crossed a major line: It dissolved the firewall between politics and economic cooperation. For the past several decades, the economies of Japan and South Korea grew together as the two countries formed an integrated supply chain. That chain is no more: Leading South Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, and SK have already begun shifting their sourcing and will continue to do so. The trade war also threw cold water on the cultural exchange between the two countries, as the South Korean public began a wide-ranging boycott of Japanese consumer products and tourism. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, South Korean visitors to Japan cratered, with the number dropping by 48 percent in 2018 and again by 58 percent year-on-year in 2019.

A pragmatic Japanese leader would recognize South Korea’s importance to their country and set aside minor points of pride in favor of tangible gains. In Europe, Germany—Imperial Japan’s former ally—has so humbled itself over its historical atrocities that there is little complaint about its leadership role in the European Union. Japan could have done the same and, however haltingly, was on the way toward doing so until Shinzo Abe took office. Throughout his tenure, Abe needlessly damaged the partnership with his country’s closest neighbor, a liberal democracy and major economic and military power, for the pettiest and the most indefensible reason: whitewashing the shameful history of Japan’s imperialism. Given China’s freshly authoritarian turn, this may well be remembered as a grievous mistake that sowed pointless dissension between the two most powerful liberal democracies of East Asia.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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