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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 6)

All News 06:55 October 06, 2021

Under Abe's shadow
Seoul-Tokyo ties unlikely to improve soon

Fumio Kishida, the leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has become the new prime minister of the world's third-largest economy. Upon his election by the Diet, Monday, he formed a 20-member Cabinet, of which 13 are first-time ministers. Yet the new lineup is raising more concerns than hopes because close confidants of nationalist former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been given key ministerial posts.

The new prime minister appears to be focused on the stability of his administration rather than seeking tangible changes from his predecessors, Yoshihide Suga and Abe. Therefore it can be said that the Kishida government has failed to create the means for innovation or reform. That is why his Cabinet is being described as an "Abe Cabinet with Kishida's face."

It is fair to say that the Kishida administration is an extension of that of Abe. So it is hard to expect any significant policy changes from the new government. Kishida is likely to maintain the major policy directions taken by Abe, all the more so as he is planning to call a snap election Oct. 31 after dissolving the lower house of parliament next week. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to expect him to concentrate on improving ties with South Korea which have been frayed over thorny historical issues.

We express disappointment at Kishida's appointment of Hirokazu Matsuno as chief cabinet secretary. Matsuno was under fire for advocating the Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine which houses the remains of class-A war criminals, among others. He was also criticized for calling for the scrapping of a 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that acknowledged the Japanese military's involvement in forcibly mobilizing Korean women as sex slaves for frontline Japanese troops before and during World War II.

Also worrisome is that Kishida has decided to keep his predecessors' foreign and defense ministers in his Cabinet. Toshimitsu Motegi has been foreign minister since he was appointed to the post by Abe in 2019. Nobuo Kishi, the younger brother of Abe, has managed to keep his post as defense minister. He has backed a revision to the postwar peace constitution to enable Japan to wage war in international conflicts. It is also problematic to appoint Koichi Hagiuda, a close ally of Abe, as economy and trade minister.

Given those appointments, Kishida seems to have little or no intention of improving relations with South Korea. Bilateral ties have reached their lowest point since both sides signed a diplomatic normalization treaty in 1965, due mainly to Japan's trade retaliation over 2018 rulings by the South Korean Supreme Court that ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation to surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor.

Now Japan should respond positively to President Moon Jae-in's letter congratulating Kishida on his election as prime minister. In the letter, Moon expressed his hopes that the two countries will forge a future-oriented partnership. He also said Seoul was ready to hold dialogue with Tokyo. We urge both leaders to hold a summit as soon as possible to resolve disputes over the wartime forced labor and sex slavery issues.

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