14.09.2020

Korea Chair Explains - Japan’s New Leader and Korean Peninsula-Japan relations

KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 14/09/2020

By Tongfi Kim

Who is Suga Yoshihide?

On 14 September, Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, was elected as the new president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to serve the remainder of Abe Shinzo’s term through September 2021. The party’s control of the lower house means that Suga is now set to become prime minister, succeeding Abe, who is the longest serving premier in Japanese history. Suga holds the record as the longest serving chief cabinet secretary, as he was in the position since Abe’s second term as prime minister began in December 2012. In Japan, a chief cabinet secretary coordinates the policies of the executive branch, manages the relationship between the governing party and the cabinet, and communicates with the media as the government’s spokesperson.

Although Suga is a self-made politician and does not have his own faction in the LDP, he has built a reputation for wielding strong power over bureaucrats and politicians, by placing his favorites in key positions and removing those he disapproves. Unlike Abe, who is generally considered a conservative nationalist, Suga is seen as a pragmatic figure who does not reveal his ideology. For both domestic and foreign policy issues, Suga has announced that he will follow in Abe’s footsteps although Suga’s policy record in the past has been mostly on domestic issues.

How will Suga’s premiership affect Korean Peninsula-Japan relations?

For Korea-Japan relations, there are reasons to believe that the leadership change is likely to have a more positive effect than a negative one. First and foremost, the relationship between South Korea and Japan has been at a rock bottom for the last couple of years. Abe has been extremely unpopular in South Korea, and South Korean polls have placed his favorability below those of other foreign leaders such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and even Kim Jong-un. A change in the Japanese leadership creates a good opportunity for both South Korean and Japanese sides to mend their ties. U.S. policymakers have widely praised Abe’s foreign policy record, but Abe’s relations with South Korea have been a major exception. Thus, Suga is in a good position to reap the low-hanging fruit of improving Tokyo-Seoul ties.

In the press conference for his LDP president candidacy, Suga expressed his interest in meeting Kim Jong-un without preconditions, a stance Abe has taken since 2019. As the chief cabinet secretary and the minister in charge of the abductions issue, Suga has been involved in Japan’s policy toward North Korea. Suga’s engagement with North Korea will be welcomed by the Moon Jae-in administration, which seeks reconciliation with North Korea. South Korean policymakers have considered the Abe administration to be an impediment to the international society’s engagement with Pyongyang.

Despite these causes for optimism, South Korea-Japan relations will continue to face many challenges under Suga’s premiership. There is no easy solution to the many disputes the two countries have. Japan’s export controls against South Korea are widely seen as a retaliation against South Korean supreme court’s order to compensate victims of wartime forced labor, an issue Japan considers to have been settled at the time of normalization in 1965, although in public Japan denies the linkage. It remains to be seen whether Seoul and Tokyo will be able to avoid further damaging their political and economic relations and focus on pragmatic bilateral cooperation.

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