Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reportedly decided to attend the 2018 Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That is the right decision. It is also reported that he did so because of concern that North Korea’s overture to Seoul risks a rupture in the united front toward Pyongyang that is the only real hope for a breakthrough in the ongoing nuclear crisis. That is the wrong reason. Abe should go to the games because doing so sends a powerful signal of Japan’s desire for strong ties with South Korea and because it will demonstrate the need to — and desirability of — prioritizing national interests above domestic politics.
The 2015 “comfort women” agreement was supposed to provide a “final and irreversible” solution to the controversy that has dogged ties between the two countries. It has not worked as promised. South Korean President Moon Jae-in upheld a campaign promise to investigate how the deal was negotiated. Despite concluding that there were flaws in that process and in its final content, his government said that it would honor the deal. Moon and Foreign Minister Kang Kyun-wha have both acknowledged that the deal was final but each has also added that they hoped Japan would do more to help heal the wounds of the victims.
In response, Abe is reported to have said that Japan would not move “one millimeter” on the deal, while Foreign Minister Taro Kono replied in an official statement that it would be “unacceptable” for Seoul to make attempts to revise the agreement and that “We can by no means accept South Korea’s demands for additional measures.”
Anger over Seoul’s behavior initially prompted Abe to abandon plans to attend the Pyeongchang Games. Few responses could have been better calculated to get Seoul’s attention, given the games’ status and significance for Seoul, the attention that would be focused on the event — and Japan’s absence, especially after Abe attended the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Cooler heads have prevailed however and the prime minister now says that he will attend the games.
Abe has offered two reasons to go. First, he wants to hold a summit with Moon “to firmly convey Japan’s stance on the agreement over the comfort women issue.” Second, he wants “to drive home the need for strong collaboration between Japan, South Korea and the United States to counter the North Korean threat, and to maintain what has been raised to the maximum level of pressure (against Pyongyang).” While those reasons make sense, they did not quell objections by some lawmakers in his own Liberal Democratic Party, who argued that Abe’s presence would signal Seoul that Tokyo’s resolve is weakening and the deal may be negotiable after all.
The objection is nonsense. All statements by the Japanese government have reiterated and reinforced Tokyo’s unwillingness to bend on this issue. There is no indication of any flexibility. Moreover, the reviews of the comfort women issue — even before the Moon government review of the 2015 agreement, the Abe government assessed the 1993 Kono Statement (which acknowledged Japanese government involvement in the recruitment of comfort women) — have revealed regular communications between the two governments and little misunderstanding between them. Both sides understand the other’s position.
Still, Abe should attend the games for a different reason, one that transcends the tactical (or perhaps strategic) calculations that he has offered. Abe should go because it would signal the correct order of national priorities, most notably that strategic concerns should be superior to domestic politics. In going to Pyeongchang, Abe is telling the Japanese people and South Koreans that their relationship is more important than domestic politics, and that real leaders put the national interest before narrowly defined political concerns. He is inviting Moon to join him and rise above identity politics.
The summit and the messaging on North Korea will follow, but the real significance of this decision is its indication of the need to move beyond the cycle of action and reaction, anger and disappointment that has marked and impeded Japan-South Korea relations for far too long. Decisions like this demonstrate real leadership and such leadership is the foundation of stable and positive relations between these two neighbors.
Brad Glosserman (email@example.com) is a visiting professor at Tama University’s Center for Rule Making Strategies and a senior adviser at Pacific Forum CSIS. He is the co-author (with Scott Snyder) of “The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash” (Columbia University Press, 2015).