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Park to usher in new era of friendship, or side with China?

To avoid father's 'pro-Japan' taint, new leader could take harder line

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Park Geun Hye was inaugurated Monday as South Korea’s first female president, ushering in what many in Japan hope will be a new era in improved bilateral relations, which were strained by her predecessor, Lee Myung Bak.

But experts in Japan are unsure if Park will deliver on such hopes, although in Japan she is often associated with her father’s achievement of nomalizing diplomatic relations with Japan in the 1960s.

Park also takes a softer line and appears more self-restrained than Lee, who last August became the first South Korean leader to visit the Seoul-controlled Takeshima islets, which are known in Lee’s country as Dokdo.

That trip was seen as a bid to fan nationalist sentiment in order to restore his tarnished legacy while boosting the popularity of his party and ultimate successor, Park.

For Japan, Park was preferable to her December election rival, Moon Jae In, a leftwing dark horse who had called on Seoul to put more pressure on Tokyo over points of bilateral contention.

“Park is not a politician who plays to the grandstand. She won’t intentionally hurt the South Korea-Japan relationship,” said Ryukoku University professor and Korean affairs expert Ri Sotetsu.

“In that sense, Japan can feel at ease” with Park’s debut, said Ri, who published a biography of Park in Japan last November.

At present, however, Park hasn’t signaled any immediate desire to boost relations with Japan.

Her father, the assassinated dictator Park Chung Hee, was president when South Korea established diplomatic ties with Japan in 1965 and concluded a basic relations treaty.

Kan Kimura, a professor at Kobe University and a noted expert on Korean affairs, said some Japanese may think Park would be favorably inclined to foster improved relations, but that could be a mistaken notion.

“I don’t think she will actively work to improve the Japan-South Korea relationship,” Kimura said.

Park’s father, who was fluent in Japanese, was an Imperial Army officer in the Manchurian puppet state of Manchukuo.

He maintained close relations with many Japanese leaders after the war, including the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of current leader Shinzo Abe.

But domestic political foes still brand the late president as “pro-Japan,” a weakness in the eyes of some South Koreans that could easily be spread to his daughter, Ryukoku University’s Ri said.

In South Korea, a “pro-Japan” reputation can be a powerful stigma for politicians.

“The background of her father will be a burden for her” rather than an asset in handling diplomacy with Japan, Ri said.

Kimura also pointed out that Park lacks a strong domestic power base.

She won the December election by a razor-thin margin, and her ruling Saenuri Party, too, has a slim majority in the National Assembly.

“If the ruling party is split, it would easily lose a majority (in the assembly),” Kimura said, adding that Park doesn’t have a chance to change the situation until at least 2016, when the next general election will be held.

Anti-Japan sentiment remains strong among South Korean voters, and Park would not resist such sentiment at home if she believes it would help her to retain her political clout, Kimura said.

Lee, too, was initially considered Japan-friendly, and even had a much stronger power base than Park when he launched his administration in 2008. He won a landslide victory in the presidential election and his party enjoyed a stable majority in the assembly.

But as a lame duck leader, Lee resorted to whipping up anti-Japan fervor in a bid to boost both his and his party’s popularity — a common political ploy.

This practice has never changed, Kimura said, noting that Park, who studied and speaks fluent Chinese, apparently attaches more importance to relations with China than those with Japan.

Past precedent had held that incoming South Korean presidents first met with the U.S. ambassador after their election, followed by the Japanese ambassador, and then the Chinese ambassador.

But Park was the first to tinker with this tradition by meeting first with the U.S. ambassador and then with the Chinese envoy. The Japanese ambassador followed, leaving Japanese diplomats in Seoul dumbfounded.

“She is signaling to China that she is attaching more importance to China than Japan. This is a clear departure from the administration of Lee Myung Bak,” Kimura said, adding that she will probably side with China against Japan over historical or territorial points of contention if tensions with Japan flare.

But Park has another reason to prioritize ties with Beijing over those with Tokyo: While Japan’s economic presence in South Korea has declined in recent years, China’s has grown exponentially.

China is now the destination for about one-third of South Korea’s total exports, whereas Japan accounts for just some 7 percent.

Abe’s Cabinet, which has been focusing on domestic economic issues, is now working hard to mend ties with Seoul.

Abe and key government officials have repeatedly called South Korea “the most important neighboring country that shares basic values and interests” with Japan.

Abe has also stopped talking about replacing two key war apologies, one issued in 1995 by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and the other in 1993 by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party had also pledged during the December election that returned the party to power to have the central government host a ceremony in Shimane Prefecture to commemorate the 1905 annexation by Japan of the disputed Takeshima islets. However, Abe didn’t fulfill this pledge, and the prefecture held its own event Friday.

So far, Abe has kept some of the hawkish goals he espoused in last year’s campaign in check, leaving South Koreans perplexed and wondering which is the true Abe, Kimura said.