Abefs Diplomatic Backtrack

Here is my latest piece in The Diplomat.

Abefs Diplomatic Backtrack

I did not write how to mend strained relations between Japan and South Korea, and Japan and China in my story, but I think the solution is simple.

First of all, let us stop accusing each other. Instead, Japanese politicians and media should try to urge the public to address Japan's past wrongs, possibly including the war responsibility of the last emperor.

Meanwhile, Chinese and South Korean governments and media should encourage their peoples to take an attitude of forgiveness toward Japan because modern Japanese are basically not responsible for the past.

We should make these parallel efforts in Japan, China and South Korea. I know itfs not an easy job at all. But thatfs what politicians and media have to do now in their countries, instead of whipping up nationalism here and there. Unless every nation tries to change the domestic public mindset, situations will never improve after all.

Last December, I went to Israel for 10 days and found Israel and Palestine keep accusing each other almost forever, not understanding the other's domestic conditions. It's easy to accuse the other side, but it won't solve the problem. It's because each nation has its own view.


Japanfs nationalist prime minister tries to ease tensions with his East Asian neighbors.

By Kosuke Takahashi
April 04, 2014

Having generated considerable turbulence in East Asia with his nationalistic policies, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be walking back his reactionary stance on modern history|at least in public. With apparent reluctance, he promised last month to uphold the 1993 Kono Statement admitting culpability and apologizing to the gcomfort womenh who had been forced to provide sex services during World War II, and the 1995 Murayama Statement apologizing for Japanese colonization and wartime aggression.

These concessions paved the way for Abe to hold his first formal talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye since the two leaders took office. The meeting was hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 25. In addition to lowering the heat, in meeting Park, Abe also enabled Obama to save face as mediator.

However, any signs of diplomatic thaw with South Korea could prove ephemeral as the two nations head towards 2015, the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Both anniversaries will require Abe to issue his own statements; his neighbors will be listening intently.

A Change in Direction

Abefs recent reversal of direction in a political climate of reactionary conservatism that still prevails in Tokyo appears to be a repeat of the toning down of his hawkish stance that occurred during his first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.

Abe entered that first term with a conservative agenda, calling for ga departure from the postwar regime.h But just as he has done this time, he gradually toned down public displays of nationalism. In 2007, hoping to repair relations with Beijing and Seoul, which had hit a nadir under his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, Abe chose not to mark the August 15 anniversary of the end of World War II for Japan with a visit to Tokyofs controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo. A severe defeat in the July Upper House elections the month before had forced Abe to place his long-cherished goal of a constitutional amendment on the backburner.

None of this came easily. Abe later said on multiple occasions that he regretted not visiting the shrine during his first term as prime minister. And so it was not surprising that late last year he went to Yasukuni to mark the one-year anniversary of his second term. However, that visit marked the beginning of a series of diplomatic setbacks for Abe, ultimately forcing a change in direction. The fear of Abe and his handlers is that overt historical revisionism will leave Japan isolated, regionally and globally, especially from its most important ally, the U.S. which shocked the Japanese government when it expressed public disappointment over the Yasukuni visit.

A Global Audience

At the start of the trilateral summit in The Hague on March 25, a smiling Abe spoke to Park in front of a battery of television cameras, saying in Korean, gPresident Park, I am glad to meet you.h For her part, Park maintained a stern countenance.

Abefs friendly overture seemed targeted not so much at better Japan-South Korea relations as at his global audience. The Japanese prime minister appeared to be hoping to show the world that his country is always serious about mending strained relations with its neighbors, and that it is rather leaders like Park who are recalcitrant when it comes to Japan.

On March 31, Nikkei Business Magazine reported Abe has often privately complained to his aides about South Korea, specifically its unyielding position on Japan and resistance to a U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral meeting in The Hague. gI am fed up with (South Korea),h Abe is reported to have said.

There is a growing view in Tokyo that Seoul and Beijing will continue to step up pressure on Japan on controversial historical issues, even though Abe has accepted the Kono Statement and the Murayama Statement. This view encourages pessimism: no matter what Abe concedes on history issues, Japanfs relations with China and South Korea cannot and will not improve in the near future.

Hajime Izumi, a professor of international relations at the University of Shizuoka, certainly thinks so. Speaking at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo on March 26, he said that South Korea and China are the only two countries that are truly concerned about history and that Japan should accept that gthey will just listen to what they want to listen to, and not listen to what they donft want to listen to, no matter what Japan does.h

According to Izumi, Japan should instead focus on a global audience to gain broader support. In this respect, it was good for Tokyo to adopt the Murayama and Kono statements, a move that will be pleasing for a broader audience.

Comfort Women

If he is hoping to gain international support, then Abe has made two serious tactical errors in recent months. The first of course, was his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which has done extensive harm to Japanese diplomacy and its postwar image as a pacifist nation.

The second mistake is the Abe administrationfs ongoing review of the 1993 Kono Statement, which acknowledged the mobilization of comfort women by Japanese forces during World War II. It will surely be difficult for the international community to understand why his administration feels it has to review the statement, given that Abe has already publicly pledged to uphold it. The review itself could be regarded by some as a denial of past wrongs, even if it truly does focus on trying to ascertain the historical facts relating to what really happened to the comfort women.

To be sure, more than a few Japanese believe that China and South Korea exaggerate the facts, including the number of victims of wartime sexual slavery. They chafe at the perceived inaccuracy of the historical facts China and South Korea always cite. But for Japan to investigate the historical evidence looks to some as if it is trying to claim innocence. The reactions in countries that were victimized, such as China and South Korea, will inevitably be intense.

For this reason, many experts join Izumi in advising Japan to show some more generosity of spirit, and sincerely apologize rather than trying to quibble over the facts.

The Crash of 2015

Looking ahead, the thorny issue of comfort women is unlikely to abate. For South Korea, this issue is a priority and it wants Tokyo to pay compensation to those women, accompanied by an official apology. Japanfs position is that the two nations have already settled the issue on a government-to-government basis in the form of economic cooperation under the normalization treaty in 1965, and it refuses to pay damages.

Itfs worth noting Abefs own views on the comfort women issue. In one video aired by the Liberal Democratic Party on August 6, 2010, Abe said, gThe common thing in both Murayama and Kono statements is that (the statements) disdain Japan as a nation and make (us) slip into self-complacency that (we are) conscientious and kind persons.h

gThis is an extremely vicious act that damages Japanfs national interests,h Abe said. gThrough the (Kono) statement, (we were) forced to acknowledge that Japan is a terrible country that demeaned women by making comfort women sex slaves. It also became clear that (those women who testified) made a lie.h

In accepting the Kono Statement, Abe is today keeping his true feelings to himself, but there is always the risk that|grilled by opposition parties in the Diet|the mask may drop.

Looking ahead, Abe has a few more potential opportunities to meet with both Park as well as with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Meetings could potentially occur on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in mid-September, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Beijing, or the G20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane, Australia both in November. The chances of a breakthrough, though, seem very slim.

Then comes 2015, and the two sensitive anniversaries. In his statements to mark them, Abe is highly unlikely to touch on Japanfs prewar history. Instead, he will probably focus on the nationfs impressive postwar development and growth. This will again arouse anti-Japanese sentiment in Seoul and Beijing, especially around August 15, when South Koreans and Chinese tend to fan such sentiment.

And once again, seventy years after World War II ended, that tragic chapter of history will enflame tensions across Northeast Asia.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times, NK News and Janefs Defence Weekly, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke
posted by Kosuke at 03:13| Comment(0) | The Diplomat


My latest in The Diplomat: Shinzo Abefs Nationalist Strategy


Shinzo Abefs Nationalist Strategy

With his overt nationalism and his historical revisionism, Shinzo Abe has a plan for Japan.

By Kosuke Takahashi
February 13, 2014

The world is now beginning to realize Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abefs true intentions. With his controversial visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which memorializes war dead, including Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo, he is no longer hesitant to reveal his true nature: without question, the most conservative leader in Japanfs postwar history. And he is a historical revisionist, notably with respect to wartime Japan. By encouraging a spirit of nationalism, Abe is hoping to engender self-confidence and patriotism among the Japanese public.

But what exactly is his future agenda? To understand Abefs political ambitions, you need to understand their take on modern Japan.

For mainstream Japanese conservatives such as the Abe family, Tokyo has been shackled since it accepted the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, known as the Tokyo Trials. For one thing, as a defeated nation Japan has always been forced to take a servile position| militarily and diplomatically|toward the U.S., the World War II victor. And Japan has had to repeatedly bow its head to its neighbors, such as China and South Korea, to apologize for its conduct during the war.

Willingly or not, Japan embraced these two international restraints when it signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, hoping to return to the fold of the international community as an independent nation.

More than 60 years later, though, the Abe administration wants to free Japan from these perceived shackles. In his own words, he is seeking a gdeparture from the postwar regimeh by gbringing back Japan.h Although Abe has never said from gwhath he will bring back the nation, many Japanese believe what he meant is to bring back a militarily, diplomatically and economically strong Japan from the political and economic abyss of the past decades, and perhaps in the long term from the U.S. itself.

Although Abefs popularity has recently tapered somewhat from the heady days early in this, his second stint as prime minister, many Japanese still support his nationalistic program, because they feel that Japan lacks strength and needs to stand on its own feet, amid mounting nationalism in East Asia and a rising China.

So, to return to the question: What is Abefs grand strategy? In fact, Abe has a three-year plan to accomplish his ultimate goal of having Japan gdepart from the postwar regime.h


Abefs Three-Year Plan

During the first year of his second term in office 2013, Abe proposed a move from gpassive pacifismh to a gproactive pacifismh that encourages Japan to contribute more proactively to world peace and international cooperation. He then established a Japanese National Security Council (NSC). He also announced the first National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Programme Guidelines (NDPG) that introduced the concept of ga Dynamic Joint Defense Force.h This new concept emphasizes the Self-Defense Forcesf (SDF) joint operations and interoperability capability at sea, in the air and on land, and bolster the nationfs defensive posture in the southwest|in particular the Nansei island chain that includes Okinawa and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.

Over the last year, Abefs government has also enacted a controversial secrecy law to prevent leaks of state secrets, after it was pressured by the U.S. to tighten the confidentiality of their shared intelligence on security.

Now, in his second year, Abe is trying to reinterpret the constitution to allow for the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. Abe will also formally abolish Japanfs decades-old ban on weapons exports this year. In January, his administration revised textbook screening guidelines to give Japanese children a more patriotic take on modern Japanese history and to better reflect the governmentfs view on territorial issues such as on Senkaku Islands. Abe has also succeeded in placing four conservative intellectuals with whom he has very close ties on Japanfs public television NHKfs management board. Some of their comments have already stirred considerable controversy.

In this third year, 2015, Abe plans to change Article 9 of the U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution, accomplishing his final goal of escaping from the postwar regime.

This three-year plan seeks to boost national security and could lead to Japanese involvement in conflicts abroad in the future.

Shinichi Kitaoka, a former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations and a key Abe adviser, remarked recently that all of these steps are simply trying to bring Japan closer to a gnormal country.h Kitaoka is now deputy chairman of Abefs Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security, which is expected to recommend reinterpreting Japanfs war-renouncing Constitution to lift the self-imposed ban on the right to exercise collective self-defense in April.

Abefs Historical Perspective

An attempt at bringing Japan out of the postwar regime in terms of national security issues will inevitably require the country to address the issue of its historical view, sparking a national debate on modern history.

In this context, Abefs visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is a manifest of his determination to accomplish his final goal. He needs to unite at least his conservative allies and supporters within Japanese political circles amid domestic and foreign opposition.

The most important question to come out of his visit to the shrine is whether Abe really thinks that Japanfs wartime leaders, such as Hideki Tojo and Abefs own grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a Class A war crimes suspect by order of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, did the wrong thing or not during the war.

It is apparent that Abe believes they were innocent. His book Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision For Japan, published in 2006, is revealing on this and other aspects of the prime ministerfs thinking.

In the book, he says that Japanese war-time leaders bore the greatest share of responsibility, but pointed out that the majority of the public also supported the military strongly. He cited as an example of this strong public support, major newspapers that fed the war frenzy with front-page headlines like g(We) Should Fight Adamantly.h He also notes that Class A war criminals were brought before the Tokyo Trials on charges of gcrimes against peaceh and gcrimes against humanity,h based on concepts formed after the war, questioning the legitimacy of the trials. He goes on to note that Japanese domestic laws do not deal with Tojo et al as criminals; indeed, the government continued to pay their pensions after the war.

In this book, Abe quotes Father Bruno Bitter, representative of the Roman Curia, who, when asked by the supreme commander of the U.S. occupying force how to deal with Yasukuni Shrine, said, gAny nation has the right and obligation to pay tributes to the warriors who died for the nation.h Abe also makes the Arlington cemetery comparison, as he has done recently.

Of course, Abe is on record repeatedly defending Japanfs conduct before and during World War II. On April 23 last year, Abe even told the Diet that he does not believe Japanfs occupation of other Asian countries during the war can be considered ginvasions.h According to Abe, thatfs because there are no set international or academic definitions of the word ginvasion.h He claimed, gIt depends on the point of view of individual countries.h He later retracted his remark after his hawkish stance was criticized by China and South Korea, saying gI never say Japan did not invade.h An editorial in The New York Times titled gJapanfs Unnecessary Nationalismh was critical: gcit seems especially foolhardy for Japan to inflame hostilities with China and South Korea when all countries need to be working cooperatively to resolve the problems with North Korea and its nuclear program.h

Abefs historical revisionism, combined with Japanfs military buildup, will continue to cause needless friction with China and South Korea. However, Russia and the U.S. may also grow worried that Abefs approach will further shake the foundations of the postwar order. Russiafs concerns likely center on the disputed islands, called the Southern Kurils by the Russians and the Northern Territories by the Japanese, which it claims it acquired legitimately as a result of the war.


U.S.-Japan Relations

What kind of relations does Abe want with the U.S., Japanfs closest ally? Here, his views are very shaped by his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi.

Although this is not widely known outside Japan, Kishi sought an independent approach when it came to relations with the U.S., especially around the time the two nations revised the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty in 1960. Ukeru Magosaki, Japanfs former ambassador to Iran and Uzbekistan, told The Diplomat that Kishi was a politician who sought diplomatic independence, rather than one willing to accept diplomatic subservience to Washington.

Abe praised Kishifs approach in his book Towards a Beautiful Country, saying gGrandfather at that time tried to fulfill the requirements of an independent nation by changing this unilateral treaty into a more equal one. Looking back, [Kishi] took a very realistic approach of strengthening U.S.-Japan ties to realize Japanfs independence.h

Now Abe is trying to do the same. He wants to enhance Japanfs role in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty by authorizing the use of the right to collective self-defense so as to contribute to U.S. global strategy. He believes that by assuming a greater role in U.S.-Japan security cooperation and by placing the U.S.-Japan relationship on a more equal footing, Japan can better stand up to the U.S., such as on the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. Again, his book provides evidence of this.

But his nationalistic behavior has ratcheted up already strained tensions with China and South Korean, particularly over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute. The U.S. surely doesnft want to get involved in unnecessary military conflicts with a powerful and intractable rising China, its security treaty with Japan notwithstanding. As a consequence, more and more U.S. officials may rate Abe a security risk if he continues down his current path. That could very quickly force Abe to return his emphasis to continuity, rather than his departure from the postwar order.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times, NK News and Janefs Defence Weekly, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke
posted by Kosuke at 23:14| Comment(0) | The Diplomat


(My latest in The Diplomat) Whatfs going on in North Korea?


Whatfs Going On In North Korea?

July 19, 2012

Changes at the top in Pyongyang? Disney characters on display? Is Kim Jong-un tightening his grip on power? Kosuke Takahashi reports.

When it comes to the wrangling of elites inside Pyongyang, one has to wonder whether a power struggle or policy change is under way in the Hermit Kingdom.

In a surprise move, North Koreafs top military officer, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, 69, was abruptly removed from all his posts of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) due to illness, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced on July 16.

Pyongyang also announced on July 17 that it has promoted Gen. Hyon Yong-chol, little known outside North Korea, to vice marshal of the military, raising expectations Hyon will replace Ri both as vice marshal and as chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA).

This sudden reshuffle is sparking speculation over new North Korean leader Kim Jong-unfs internal purge of the old guard, such as Ri, cherished by his father, the late Kim Jong-il. This top-level shakeup also suggests the young leader Kim Jong-un and his closest aides only allow Songun (military-first) politics to operate within a framework that ensures the partyfs superiority over the military, ousting old hardline military officers like Ri.

gRi Yong-ho and his parents had strong family ties with late Kim Jong-il,h Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Yonsei University of South Korea, told The Diplomat. gPurging Ri means Kim Jong-un may want to go ahead against his fatherfs will. A recent musical gala featuring Disney characters in Pyongyang may be another example of his departure from his fatherfs policy.h

On July 18, North Koreafs state media also announced Kim Jong-un has been named gmarshalh of the communist state. The BBC noted: gThis latest promotion is another sign that Kim Jong-un is planning to rule North Korea through the army, just as his father did–and that he is tightening his grip on the levers of power.h


But when it comes to North Korea, itfs always important to distinguish fact from unconfirmed information.

First, there has been no sign of an unusual state in North Koreafs 1.2 million-strong army, reducing speculation of a possible coup.

Second, some Western media cited Ri as gNorth Korean military chief.h Not quite true. Unlike Western militaries, the No. 1 post of North Koreafs military is not the chief of the General Staff of the KPA but the director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA. As evidence of this, Ri ranks fifth in the party hierarchy, while Choe Ryong-hae, the current director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA, ranks fourth, according to North Koreafs official periodically released accounts.

gIt is very unusual to hold for the Politburo to convene on a Sunday and announce its decision to dismiss Ri abruptly the following day,h says Takesada, a former executive director of the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo, the Japanese Ministry of Defense's think-tank.

It was also notable that, when referring to Ri, North Korea didnft use an honorific such as gComradeh in its official announcement. This may suggest that a power shift or a struggle is still under way in Pyongyang.

Ri played a key role in helping the young heir to establish a powerbase among the military, whose support is key to regime stability. As a career military man, Ri assumed the post of chief of general staff of the KPA in February 2009. He was then appointed vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission in September 2010, when Kim Jong-un established his status as successor to his father. Ri was one of eight officials who escorted the hearse carrying Kim Jong-il during his funeral in December 2011.

Takesada also notes that Ri, known as a hardliner, was the mastermind behind the sinking of South Korea's naval vessel in March 2010 and the North Korean bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.

Yet Rifs influence has declined over the past few months, as his rival Choe Ryong-hae, 62, has strengthened his own, first by becoming director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA in April and earning the same title as Rifs, as vice marshal.

On April 15, Choe, not Ri, stood beside Kim Jong-un at the high podium during a military parade to celebrate the centenary of the birth of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, in Pyongyang. This scene signaled that Choe had effectively robbed Ri of his position as top aide to Kim Jong-un.

Choe is a son of Choe Hyon, a former minister of the Peoplefs Armed Forces and close comrade of Kim Il-sung during his days as a partisan fighter.

Choe Ryong-hae in April became a member of the decision-making Politburo Presidium of the WPK as well as vice chairman of the partyfs Central Military Commission.

The rise of Choe Ryong-hae, despite his previous civilian status in the Workers' Party, coincides with Kim Jong-unfs ascension to power, meaning Choe is Kim Jong-unfs strong favorite and top aide. Choe is also known to be close to Kim Juniorfs Uncle Jang Song-taek.

Experts such as Takesada believe that Jang Song-taek, Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and his wife Kim Kyong-hui, former leader Kim Jong-il's younger sister and a secretary of the party's Central Committee and Choe are strongly supporting Kim Jong-un as guardians.

South Koreafs Yonhap News points out that Kim Yong-chol, chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or the Northfs premier intelligence agency, who also played a leading role in the sinking of the corvette Cheonan with Ri, may feel threatened and maneuver against the current regime in some form.

Lee Young-hwa, an economics professor at Kansai University in Osaka and expert on Korea, points out that a new economic reform policy called the gJune 28 Policyh has created a conflict between the interests of a new military group led by Ri Yong-ho and those of the old military group led by O Kuk-ryol, thus triggering the current power struggle.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist. His work has appeared in the Asahi Shimbun, Bloomberg, Asia Times and Jane's Defence Weekly, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @TakahashiKosuke.
posted by Kosuke at 03:00| Comment(0) | The Diplomat