Concern that the North Korean security situation could deteriorate after next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea is seen as likely to be behind Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision this week to attend the games’ opening ceremony, despite ongoing tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over the scars of their shared past.
Even as Japan’s government welcomes North Korea’s participation in the “celebration of peace” in Pyeongchang, it is making contingency plans for possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
While speculation had built that Abe might skip the Feb. 9 ceremony in Pyeongchang, he said Wednesday he wants to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and “tell him of the need for Japan, South Korea and the United States to work together and maintain the maximum level of pressure to deal with the threat from North Korea.”
He also said he will “clearly state Japan’s stance” on a bilateral deal reached in 2015 on the issue of the so-called comfort women — women and girls forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Abe has insisted the 2015 agreement resolves the issue “finally and irreversibly,” and that it should stand as is.
But having had a task force review the deal clinched under his disgraced predecessor, Park Geun-hye, Moon called this month for Tokyo to make a fresh apology to the women and their families.
Under the deal, Japan paid ¥1 billion ($9.1 million) to a South Korean foundation set up to support former comfort women, while South Korea said it would “strive to solve” the issue of a statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul that symbolizes the women, which Japan wants relocated.
When the deal was struck, Abe also expressed “his most sincere apologies and remorse” to the victims.
As a reconciliatory mood develops between the two Koreas, Abe is eager to urge Moon to remain firm in strengthening pressure on the North rather than encouraging a dialogue that could allow the isolated state to be acknowledged as a nuclear power.
He is also apparently keen to ask Moon for his cooperation with an emergency plan for evacuating the roughly 60,000 Japanese nationals estimated to be in South Korea at any given time in the event of conflict on the peninsula.
According to a Foreign Ministry official, Seoul is reluctant to discuss the evacuation issue.
While the Moon administration has agreed with that of U.S. President Donald Trump not to conduct joint military drills during the Pyeongchang Games, Washington appears ready to restart them to place pressure on Pyongyang once the Paralympics end on March 18.
The Trump administration has still not ruled out military action against North Korea, and the possibility remains that conflict could result if the North responds to the restart of joint drills with fresh action.
With the South Korean public harboring antipathy toward its Self-Defense Forces, Japan has so far been unable to secure advance permission from Seoul for its ships to go ashore to pick up fleeing Japanese in the event of conflict.
Concern lingers in Tokyo, and according to a Foreign Ministry source it is “sorting out an evacuation plan with countries like the United States, Canada and Australia” behind Seoul’s back.
In deciding to go to Pyeongchang, it is likely Abe also considered the need to affirm the importance of ongoing trilateral cooperation with the United States and South Korea — something he mentions whenever he talks about responding to the threat from North Korea.
With Vice President Mike Pence scheduled to represent the United States, Abe’s absence would have left a noticeable void.
Still, his decision has drawn criticism from some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which in September will hold a leadership vote with the potential to give Abe a historic third term and a shot at becoming the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
Abe is thought to have a safe path to victory in the vote as long as he secures the support of intraparty factions that pay close attention to relations with South Korea and China.
At a Wednesday meeting of a party committee on perceptions of the comfort women issue, all 15 of the lawmakers who spoke opposed Abe’s attendance on the grounds it would send South Korea a message that Japan is not committed to standing firm on the 2015 deal.
But party heavyweights have expressed support for the decision, and a source close to Abe’s office said even the conservative elements of the LDP that oppose the visit “will ultimately support the prime minister.”
A source close to the party called the move “killing three birds with one stone,” saying it will help Abe in the leadership race by strengthening both the response to North Korea and Japan-U.S.-South Korea coordination, as well as laying groundwork for the country’s hosting of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
Japan-South Korea ties are also connected to Tokyo’s relationship with Beijing, which has recently shown signs of a thaw.
While Abe has expressed hopes of realizing reciprocal leadership visits with China this year — ending a decadelong hiatus — Foreign Ministry officials have said the first step is hosting a long-delayed trilateral summit between Abe, Moon and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Moon’s cooperation is crucial in realizing that meeting, but whether the gulf between Japan and South Korea on the comfort women issue is set to widen further remains to be seen.
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