Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
According to Kyodo News, after being recalled in January in protest to the placement of a statue symbolizing comfort women in Busan, Japan's ambassador to South Korea, Yasumasa Nagamine, has returned to Seoul last Tuesday. Upon arriving in Seoul, Nagamine said he would urge the Blue House to fulfill the comfort women agreement between the two sides and remove the statue.
Nagamine was absent from his post for more than 80 days, the longest on record for a Japanese ambassador's vacancy. It is thought that the return of Nagamine to South Korea represents Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's diplomatic failure. At the beginning of this year, Abe recalled Nagamine to protest against the comfort women statue. By doing this, Abe wanted to show his tough stance on the issue, and seek diplomatic dominance in South Korea-Japan relations amid the political chaos caused by the power vacuum in Seoul.
However, in the past three months, the statue of comfort women in Busan has not been removed, and there is news that South Korean civic groups plan to put a statue symbolizing the South Korean workers forcefully conscripted by Japan during WWII on display. Although Nagamine's return is conducive to the improvement of relations between Tokyo and Seoul, it is also an indication of Japan's compromise on the comfort women issue. Abe's losses outweighed its gains.
As South Korea has officially entered the presidential election period, the goal of the Abe administration in sending back the ambassador is to build links with the camps of the presidential candidates in South Korea. The 2017 South Korean presidential election has two characteristics. First, all candidates are holding a tough stance on the issue of comfort women. For example, Moon Jae-in, a presidential candidate of the country's biggest Minjoo Party and a front runner in the opinion polls, holds the position that the Japanese government must apologize and bear legal responsibility for the comfort women issue. Although candidates' attitude toward the issue does not necessarily represent their specific policies toward Japan, this stance will restrict the development of relations between the two countries. Therefore, the Abe administration is in a hurry to establish contacts with these election camps through Nagamine.
Another feature of the South Korean presidential election is that there is a lack of a transition period after the result is announced. The new president will ascend to power immediately. If Japan does not establish contacts with people from all walks of life in South Korea as soon as possible, it will be very difficult for Tokyo to exert influences on the new South Korean government's policy toward Japan. Once the policy is formed, it will have a significant impact on the bilateral relationship in the next few years.
In addition, the Abe administration attempted to cozy up to South Korea and alienate China by sending back the ambassador. Recently, due to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, Sino-South Korean ties witnessed a downturn, and it is expected that the relationship will be hard to improve in the short term. At the same time, relations between Japan and South Korea in recent years have deteriorated because of the comfort women issue and territorial disputes.
However, compared to Sino-South Korean ties, it is relatively easier to improve Japan-South Korea relations. The US often acts as the coordinator in the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral relationship. In addition, Japan and South Korea, to a certain extent, share the same security interests. They need to work together to deal with the North Korean missile threat. That is to say, even if the relationship between Japan and South Korea has dropped to a freezing point, the North Korean missile threat could motivate the two to reconcile. Therefore, with the current negative public opinion toward China in South Korea right now and the pressure of the US, the Abe administration sends back the ambassador to win over South Korea and prevent the improvement of Sino-South Korean relations.
Indeed, Nagamine's return will help improve the Japan-South Korea relationship. But it is just a starting point. It will take a while for any progress to be made between the two countries.
The author is a PhD candidate with the Tokyo-based Toyo University. email@example.com