Korea-Japan ties hang in the balance

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Seoul (The Korea Herald/ANN) - Relations between South Korea and Japan appear to be hanging in the balance as Tokyo's revitalized conservatives are poised to roll out more nationalist foreign and territorial policies after a landslide win in Sunday's election.

With a supermajority in the Diet, the Liberal Democratic Party is expected to focus on resuscitating the long-moribund economy and building a "normal" state.

Concerns are growing that Tokyo's swing to the right could further aggravate historical and territorial frictions between Japan and neighboring South Korea and China.

Shinzo Abe, the LDP's leader and now prime minister-in-waiting, has articulated his desire to rewrite the country's pacifist constitution to boost defense spending and expand the use of its Self Defense Forces. The plan is welcomed by the U.S., which has hoped for a more self-assured and equipped ally in the strategically crucial region.

Abe, a staunch nationalist, has also vowed to visit the Yasukuni Shrine venerating top war criminals, revise a watershed 1993 apology for wartime atrocities and step up territorial control.

"Abe will likely toughen his line on contentious issues given Japan's domestic political circumstances," said Jin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

"There's room for self-restraint as the U.S. wouldn't want to see its two allies clash over historical problems at a time when their trilateral cooperation is extremely important. Still there are many factors that could sour bilateral relations. Abe has made too many campaign pledges and there's pressure from other right-leaning coalition parties with which he has gained lots of votes."

But the LDP would not implement a constitutional amendment or collective self-defense operations any time soon, Jin noted, given the opposition from its center-right partner, the New Komeito party and another election for the upper house in July.

On Monday, Abe reiterated that the islands are Japan's territory and that there was "no room for negotiation."

"As with many cases, issues arise with countries that share borders, and what is important is how each nation keeps these issues under control. I feel we need wisdom so that the political issues or problems do not extend to economic problems," he told a news conference, primarily referring to the Senkaku, or Diayou, island dispute with Beijing.

Koreans have bitter memories from Japan's colonial rule from 1910-45. Among perennial fault lines between the two countries are Tokyo's age-old claim to Dokdo, forced labor and prostitution during World War II and historical falsifications in school textbooks.

A short-term defining moment may come on Feb. 22, when Japan is slated to hold a national Takeshima Day. If Tokyo decides to proceed, the event is forecast to coincide with Seoul's Feb. 25 presidential inaugural ceremony, putting bilateral relations on ice instantly.

Takeshima is the Japanese name for Dokdo.

"Based on election promises, a new Abe government would seem more conservative and place emphasis on its relationship with the U.S. But he also set store by the Korea-Japan ties when he was prime minister in 2006," a Foreign Ministry official here told reporters on customary condition of anonymity.

During his first premiership in 2006-7, Abe refrained from worshipping at the Yasukuni Shrine in consideration of the country's relations with Korea, though he later called it a "mistake." He also came to Seoul in Oct. 2006.

"Japan will have to take many factors into account not to form an (unfavorable) atmosphere. We'll also consult with each other over such areas on various occasions."

After the LDP's sweeping victory, China's official Xinhua news agency called on it to "rein in nationalist sentiment."

"Instead of pandering to domestic hawkish views and picking fights with its neighbors, the new Japanese leadership should take a more rational stand on foreign policy," it said in a commentary.

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Abe. "The U.S.-Japan Alliance serves as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and I look forward to working closely with the next government and the people of Japan on a range of important bilateral, regional and global issues," he said in a statement.

With the presidential election one day ahead, Korea's two main candidates have also promised to continuously safeguard the country's sovereignty over Dokdo and resolve the so-called comfort women and other historical issues.

Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party has stressed the need to decouple the historical animosity from exchanges between the two countries. Meanwhile, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party is expected to harden his line on territorial and historical rows.

History aside, constant cooperation in dealing with North Korea's saber-rattling may help firm up the two countries' partnership, others say.

"A new Japanese government will now have even greater cause to expand its missile and other defenses, while seeking closer cooperation with South Korea and the U.S.," Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote recently.

The resurgence of the LDP comes less than a week after the communist state fired another rocket, which the council sees as a covert test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Led by Abe, Japan's strong response to Pyongyang's 2006 rocket launch resulted in the first U.N. Security Council resolution on the matter, No. 1695, which bans trade of any material or technology for missile or arms development with the nuclear-equipped country.

The cash-strapped country's nuclear push has been the "single most effective catalyst for regional cooperation in Northeast Asia," said Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"A North Korean satellite test may provide a basis for strengthened Japan-South Korea cooperation despite deepening differences over history and territorial issues," he wrote on the think tank's blog last week.

"If there is a common threat that should rightly overcome such mistrust and galvanize regional cooperation among the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China, it most certainly should be the prospect of a 30-year old leader of a terrorized population with his finger on a nuclear trigger."

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