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Abe so far soothing U.S. fears, says ex-envoy

Entering trade talks has inspired confidence but strained relations with Seoul worry Washington

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has so far convinced the United States that he can exercise strong leadership to reshape Japan after a decade of political turmoil, but he should also be careful not to damage relations with South Korea, now strained by diplomatic tensions, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan said.

In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Tom Schieffer, who served as the top American diplomat to Japan during Abe’s first stint as prime minister up until 2007, said Abe’s announcement earlier this month that Japan would join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks helped persuade the U.S. that he knows where he wants to take Japan.

“Abe certainly was disappointed when he left the prime ministership for the first time. Sometimes when you reflect on those things, it makes you a stronger person,” said Schieffer, who met with Abe during his visit to Washington last month. “He looked to me as if he was enjoying being a prime minister more than the first time.”

Schieffer, who served in Japan from 2005 to 2009, said strong public support for Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party’s overwhelming victory in the December election also reassured U.S. officials that they will not have to see a 10th prime minister within the two U.S. presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, putting a halt to Japan’s notorious revolving door of prime ministers.

Three months into Abe’s prime ministership, many U.S. experts agree that he is not, as some media have portrayed him, a rightwing hawk but rather a conservative realist who will not blindly pursue a nationalistic agenda — at least until the Upper House election in July. Yet some concerns remain, especially regarding the relationship with South Korea.

Rising tension between the Far East neighbors negatively impacts the effort to counter China’s rising militaristic assertiveness and North Korea’s unabated nuclear threat, according to experts.

The U.S. is especially concerned that Abe will make it his mission to revisit wartime historical issues. Despite his overall optimism, Schieffer cautions Abe not to reconsider the Kono statement. A watered-down replacement of that statement would have the potential to damage Japan-South Korea-U.S. relations.

“We can all regret things that happened in the past, but we should not allow ourselves to keep those things from giving us the opportunities to do very positive things in the future,” he said.

Abe has said that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga would revisit the Kono statement, which was issued in 1993 by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The statement was the first official admission that the Japanese military and other wartime authorities were responsible for at times forcing women and girls into sexual slavery for the Imperial forces. The females are euphemistically known as “comfort women,” and they worked at “comfort stations” set up by the military.

“It’s for Japan to decide, but I think that the issue is one that Americans would not be supportive of” (if Japan replaced the statement), Schieffer said. “I think the right in America is opposed to prostitution. The left in America is opposed to the exploitation of women.”

Such a view is shared by American experts and government officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who crusaded for women’s rights. Clinton, who famously said in her 1995 speech at the Beijing women’s conference, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” pushed hard for the rights of women and girls throughout her secretaryship.

A growing number of the 1.7 million people of Korean descent in the U.S. are vociferously protesting Abe’s reconsideration of the statement.

A monument dedicated to females forced into sexual slavery during the war was erected in New Jersey last year. In January, New York state passed legislation recognizing the pain and suffering of the comfort women, as California had done in 1999.

In 2006, the House of Representatives called on the Japanese government to apologize to former sex slaves in its Resolution 121.

Doubtful that Abe will soften his stance after the House of Councilors election, experts wonder if he has a clear idea how to deal with South Korea’s new president, Park Guen Hye.

Gordon Flake, executive director of the Washington-based Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, said Abe’s remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month, in which he noted that his grandfather and Park’s father, former strongman President Park Chung Hee, were good friends, showed how little Abe understood Park’s delicate position as the daughter of the president who normalized South Korea-Japan relations.

“The greater concern is the lack of political space for President Park in addressing Korea-Japan relations, given her father’s background and her own political position as Korea’s first woman president,” said Flake.

Flake said even attempting to replace the Kono statement would trigger a “robust response” from Park and erode already crumbling mutual trust, which was worsened by South Korea’s last-minute decision to ditch the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) last year and the visit by then-President Lee Myung Bak to the Takeshima islets, which Seoul administers but Tokyo claims.

“There remains some concern in Asia and in some circles in Washington that we won’t see the real Shinzo Abe until after the Upper House election,” said Flake. “The challenge for the United States is to make it clear that the failure of the U.S., Japan and the ROK (South Korea) to present a united face sends the wrong message to North Korea and China as well as others in the region.”

  • Dan

    Great article, and statements by Amb Schieffer and Mr. Flake…