Abe’s Korea Policy

Gilbert Rozman

Sandwiched around the G20 Osaka summit were Abe’s “honeymoon” with Trump, called the best relationship ever with the United States, and Abe’s “nightmare” with Moon Jae-in, called the worst relationship with South Korea since the 1965 normalization. Are the two extremes in Japanese foreign policy related? What is driving Abe’s foreign policy at the end of the 2010s?

Japanese media have concentrated not on Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, as once anticipated for the G20, but on Donald Trump—although his third summit with Abe Shinzo in three months was expected to be redundant—and Moon Jae-in, despite the fact Abe declined to meet with him in the course of the G20 summitry. Xi Jinping’s first official visit to Japan merited attention too, but it was overshadowed in June and July by coverage of Trump and Moon. The stress here is on the economic, strategic, and identity dimensions of Japan-ROK relations under Trump’s shadow.

On August 8 a Yomiuri editorial called for deepening cooperation with the United States so that a collapse does not occur.1 At a time when the Japanese government was proclaiming the best ever bilateral relationship, this was a remarkable warning. Trump was failing to fault the short-range ballistic missiles being fired by North Korea despite the fact that the UN Security Council had prohibited them, and the US was calling on Japan to join in securing the Strait of Hormuz, but the editorial insisted that in addition to considering measures to protect its tankers, Japan must take into account friendly relations with Iran. It took exception to Trump’s allegation that the alliance is unilateral, blamed it on his “inward thinking,” and it also cited the danger of trilateral collaboration with South Korea breaking down, as if the US should do something. This message from the newspaper most defensive of the alliance could be taken as a wake-up call, as Trump was threatening Japan with tariffs on automobile exports and demands for big increases in host-nation support even as Japan was quietly proceeding with bilateral negotiations with the US. Trade imbalances, alliance fairness, and trust in a longstanding alliance all were on the table.  

On economics, the three central themes were the Sino-US trade war, the trade negotiations that began between Japan and the US, and the export restrictions Japan imposed on trade with South Korea. All three were discussed with stress on the third as a distraction from the others. On security, the three principal themes were the maritime challenge from China, the North Korean missile threat, and the Japan-US alliance. For all, linkages to South Korea were drawn. Finally, on identity, there was a Japan-US gap and a Japan-China gap, but the closest attention was given to the way identity themes were playing out in Japan-ROK relations. Abe preceded the G20 summit with a state visit from Trump, who dominated the news in the run-up to the summit and there as well. Abe followed the summit with a harsh policy toward Moon, topping the July news cycle. Unlike in most news cycles, economics, security, and identity had become heavily intertwined.

The significance of the G20 summit

The relentless build-up to the Osaka G20 summit showcased a world with deep economic as well as security challenges and the significance of Abe hosting the gathering at a critical juncture in history. Without suggesting that Japan had the clout to reverse global trends, the media prized Abe’s role as an advocate of a rule-based order and as a leader who has cultivated good relations with leaders on both sides of the sharpest international divides. An image was conveyed of Japan as a bridge-builder, a leader in its own right, and a country intent on a proactive foreign policy. It would not break with Trump but would work to narrow differences between him and other leaders, and it would not seek to “decouple” China from the world economy but strive to get it to adhere to rules. Unlike the US posture toward China’s BRI plans, Japan agreed to join in building infrastructure if conditions of transparency are met. Its aspirations could be discerned from the Japanese media discourse through the late spring and early summer of 2019.

At a time of an accelerating trade war between Washington and Beijing and of growing fears that the post-Cold War model of global international economic growth cannot endure, Tokyo’s task at the G20 was somehow to steer countries onto a new course. In the face of rival strategies for reorganizing the Indo-Pacific region, Tokyo—despite having proposed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) approach—is working with Beijing to reshape the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a manner to make it more sustainable and acceptable to nay-sayers. Skeptical of Trump’s approach to Kim as the two prepared to meet after the G20 summit and even more of Moon Jae-in’s eager overtures to Kim, Japan was preparing a surprise, unilateral response to Moon with implications for the Japan-US-ROK triangle as well as for joint policy to the North. Abe had a strategic plan.

The G20 summit was a success in the eyes of conservatives for Abe’s personal diplomacy and to some progressives for Japan’s contribution to global order when it was under threat. If in 2018 the message was anti-protectionism, this G20 faced much greater threats to world order—both economic and strategic as well as environmental—and Japan stood up for the right causes.2

Abe’s LDP solidly won the Upper House elections, and Abe claimed success in hosting the G20 meetings in Osaka, but the early summer brought more criticism of his foreign policy than had been customary of late. Asahi on July 10 criticized his secret tête-à-têtes with Trump given the intensified aggressiveness of Trump toward Japan on trade and the alliance, adding criticism of Abe’s similar style with Putin as unsuccessful. On June 3 Asahi headlined its coverage with the charge that Abe’s diplomacy had reached a dead end. The sharpening Sino-US clash, e.g. over digital technology, left Japanese at a loss too, as in Yomiuri’s June 24 article calling for defense of free trade, democracy, and international cooperation. Trump’s June 29 press conference in Osaka was a wake-up call, even leading to calls for reconsidering priority for the US in Japan.
The progressive press was energized, and the most conservative press was raising concerns, but buttressed by the reliable Yomiuri conservatism and adroit in refocusing attention on the obvious target of South Korea, Abe revitalized support from the far right and muted many on the center and the left. He conveyed a proactive image of a fierce nationalist despite his recent pragmatism.

The April-June commentary on Japan-ROK relations

On April 19 Sankei covered the purge of school songs in South Korea composed by persons now consider “shinilpa” and considered to be a bad influence by the Moon administration. Strictly dividing individuals under Japan’s rule into the “pro-Japan faction” and “independence faction,” Moon spoke on the 100th anniversary of the independence movement on March 1 of purging
the pro-Japan residue and forging a new spirit. The article concludes by equating this “attack” on history and culture to the Taliban assault in Afghanistan and the Red Guards’ actions in China. On April 17 Sankei had equated South Korean populism as well as the purge against those seen as collaborators to Hitler’s assault on Jews and McCarthyism in the United States, saying that the term “shinilpa” is being used to attack political enemies, dampening youth opinion toward Japan.
Also, Sankei on April 9 accused South Korea of violating UN sanctions restrictions on dealings with North Korea, calling on international society and the US to investigate such transgressions.

On April 30 in Sankei Kuroda Katsuhiro traced the evolution of South Korea’s use of “king” instead of emperor for Japan’s top post. While the government follows international convention, the mass media and virtually all of society use “king” unlike the rest of the world. This harkens back to China’s custom of calling its leader “emperor” and others “king,” indicating their lower stature, but it also reflected a shift in 1989 by the mass media, arousing anti-Japan sentiments as the Showa era turned into the Heisei era. With the shift from Heisei to Reiwa, the language is not changing, Kuroda argues, noting that to use the word for “emperor” would seem to fail to convey that Korea is no longer a colony of Japan. While under the Kim Dae-jung government use of the word “emperor” was revived with some usage on television and in Donga Ilbo, Roh Moo-hyun’s era was a reversal, which Kuroda attributes to Koreans wanting their country to be superior to Japan, seeing such an emotional approach to foreign policy as the background to recent policies.

The same day Yomiuri carried an article on the quiet reopening of the An Jung-geun memorial hall at the Harbin station, where An had assassinated Ito Hirobumi in 1909. Opened first in January of 2014, honoring a request from Park Geun-hye, it was relocated in February 2017 as
the station was refurbished and reopened on March 30 with no restoration yet of the information placard and no notice in the Chinese media to the consternation of the Korean media. It asks if China, welcoming improved relations with Japan, is acting from concern about Japan’s response, while just saving face for South Korea via the reopening.

Progressive Japanese sought to put aside the October Korean court decision, as was clear in the article by Asaba Yuki in Tokyo Shimbun on April 29. While Japanese consider the verdict illegal, Japan refuses to recognize the annexation of Korea as illegal, hinting at an inconsistency. Asaba argues that the two have more in common with each other than with any other state, and Tokyo should consult with Seoul on low birthrates and women’s progress, not just focus on one issue.

The mood in Japan was still hesitant when on May 16, former ambassador to the ROK Okura Kazuo wrote in Yomiuri that it was important to win the understanding of the Korean people, as many as 7.5 million of whom had visited Japan in 2018 and whose views of Japan, unlike views of South Korea by Japanese, have not recently soured. Yet, he warned about clashing strategic views over North Korea and China, which complicate governmental ties, and Korea’s internet society arousing anti-Japan emotions, even if many are not necessarily anti-Japanese. Behind the “comfort women” and forced labor issues is the intensification of national identity in Korea. As a diplomat, he learned that Kim Dae-jung regarded the 1965 normalization treaty with Japan as a mistake. Should reunification occur, Okura foresees a total push to establish ties on a new basis. In the meantime, his advice is to seek true reconciliation between the citizens on the two sides.

The June situation

When the defense ministers of Japan, the ROK, and the US met at Shangri-La on June 2, what was the configuration? Was it Japan versus the others, who had refused to call the missile tests by North Korea a violation of the UNSC regime (Tokyo Shimbun, June 3)? Or was it Japan and the US versus South Korea, as Yomiuri (June 3) insisted due to North Korea and China policy or the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”? Japanese were growing more impatient about South Korea’s foreign policy as well as its position on bilateral relations (Yomiuri editorial, June 4).

On the court-required compensation, Japan sought arbitration and gave Seoul until June 18 to name its choices, leading Japan to indicate it would wait no longer.3 At the end of June Japanese were awaiting strong measures against South Korea, delayed due to the G20 summit.4 The disbanding of the foundation for the “comfort women” set up with Japanese funds was made final only on July 5 against Japan’s opposition.5 The December 2015 agreement was expected to put Japan-ROK relations on an upswing; its rejection was continuing to have the opposite effect.

Moon’s “two-track” approach to Japan—calling for economic relations to proceed, including investments from Japanese firms, while damaging ties in other respects—was in difficulty well before Abe’s July trade restrictions. Korean conservatives were warning of a “trade war” with serious consequences for the Korean economy, and Japanese foresaw it could hit them too.6

Yoshioka Keiko in the June 29 Asahi noted the sharp contrast, politically, in Japan’s treatment of China and South Korea at the G20, and, in travel, in individual Japanese (two-thirds women) traveling to South Korea (up 28 percent to nearly 3 million in 2018) versus the declining number to China (2.7 million, a 30 percent drop from the 2007 peak). China has lost soft power for its
history and culture, while for women, South Korea’s Hallyu, cosmetics, and fashion are very chic. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has complained about the imbalance in Sino-Japanese tourism, leading to agreement to encourage study travel or short-term tours of large groups like students.

Moon sought a meeting with Abe, but in Osaka was limited to a brief handshake and afterwards to sending a request through his ambassador,7 met with news that Abe did not plan to see him in September at the General Assembly. Abe was in no hurry. Whereas there was scant concern that he would lose support in Japan (as proven in the July Upper House elections), more was reported on Korean conservative opposition to Moon’s “rabid anti-Japan” approach.8 Also, the coverage stressed Korean worry about the US position (in support of triangular ties and blaming Seoul) and about ROK isolation even before the export restrictions were announced after the G20.9 The focus of the restrictions is on semi-conductor parts over which Japan holds a near monopoly and on which Samsung electronics and smartphones heavily depend.10 Abe hit Seoul while it is down. Japan’s government denies that the export controls are retaliation for demands for compensation for forced labor,11 but few believe that.12 While progressives make the case that both sides suffer from the controls, conservatives make the more persuasive case that South Korea takes the brunt of the burden.13 Korean companies have few reserves; Japan has a near monopoly on the items.14

Public opinion and national identity

A frequent theme in Japanese coverage of the cause of the trouble with South Korea is a loss of trust. While the immediate cause for export restrictions announced on July 1 was alleged to be violations of the international sanctions against North Korea, as early as July 2 Yomiuri posted a heading citing reduced trust as a reason.15 Concerned that Japan would be accused just days after it championed free trade at the G20 of breaking with that principle, some stuck to the claims that the purpose of the restrictions was security;16 others warned of alarm that this violated Japan’s WTO agreement17 backed by an editorial calling for immediate withdrawal of the “retribution,”18 rejecting the path of following the US and China in using trade for political aims. Abe said it is not a WTO violation, insisting that the other side had broken a promise; so it is natural to end privileged treatment to it.19 Tokyo Shimbun suggested that this was an election ploy.20 When Seoul went to the WTO charging a violation of its rules, the response from Tokyo was that this was done for reasons of security. Sankei pointed to 156 cases of such exports in a three-year period (adding details on 68 cases linked to biological and chemical weapons and claims of weak oversight) and Yomiuri identified 142 cases.21 Headlines blared that pro-North Korea Syria and Iran were aided in making biological and chemical weapons by the South’s lax export controls.22

ROK-Japanese relations have gone from bad to worse in July. A joint public opinion poll taken by Yomiuri Shimbun and Hankook Ilbo on May 24-26 and reported in Yomiuri on June 11 reveals the dismal starting point before ties went off a cliff in July. Korean progressives consumed with righting what is viewed as an historical injustice and Japanese conservatives determined to end the opprobrium of historical apologies and use of the “history card” against their country made for an incendiary pairing. Moon Jae-in rallied support for abrogating the “comfort women” deal, which progressives deeply opposed largely because it did not represent the kind of full apology they demanded for Japan’s annexation and horrendous behavior as occupier. He accepted the court verdict on compensation to laborers conscripted by Japan despite the 1965 normalization treaty interpreted in Japan and elsewhere as settling such claims for compensation. Moreover, on June he gave a speech interpreted by Chosun Ilbo the next day as arousing the public behind a purge of those deemed pro-Japanese (shinilpa) in the colonial era. Economically having reduced its dependence on Japan and strategically confident that the US alliance could suffice without the triangular ROK-Japanese leg and that North-South relations left Japan on the sidelines, Moon was confident that, at last, completely alienating Japan would not backfire on his administration.  

The joint poll captured the state of the relationship on the eve of the downward spiral.23 The top takeaway was that ¾ of Japanese do not trust South Korea, and more than 80 percent on both sides view relations as bad. Emphasis was put on historical consciousness arousing mutual distrust and driven by South Korean insistence on changing the terms of the relationship (87 percent demanding another apology for wartime forced labor, while 80 percent of Japanese say that is not needed).24 While South Koreans are visiting Japan in larger numbers—close to 50 percent of all tourists—the government has deliberately fanned distrust, reverberating in how the Japanese people have viewed South Korea, sine 2011 when the majority saw relations as good.

Even in 2018 when 63 percent saw them as bad, a turnaround would have been easier than now when the figure has jumped to 83 percent.25 Lee Myung-bak in the summer of 2012 went to Takeshima (Dokdo), Park Geun-hye criticized Japan repeatedly in third countries (leading to 87 percent of Japanese respondents in 2014 saying relations are bad), and now after a rebound in 2016 Moon has deliberately provoked another slide—more comprehensively than in the past. It is suggested that leaders deflect attention at home from failure—in Moon’s case from no progress with North Korea and failed economic policies. Neither Japanese nor South Koreans think they can trust Trump (under 1/3) or Xi Jinping (under 20 percent), let alone Kim Jong-un; so one would think that this would not be a good time to turn on each other. Yet, only if one reflects on triangular relations can one make sense of the moves Moon and Abe are making.

The Japan-ROK-US triangle has always been at the center of analysis of external factors on the Japan-ROK relationship. Abe is confident that his relationship with Trump is much better than Moon’s is, tilting this triangle sharply in Japan’s direction. Moreover, the recent improvement in Sino-Japanese relations but less so in Sino-ROK relations adds to Japan’s leverage. The recent poll bears out this shift: Japanese respondents calling relations with China good have risen from 27 to 32 percent, while the Korean figures have fallen from 48 to 31 percent—a reversion back toward their nadir below 20 percent in 2017 when China was showing anger over THAAD.26

The “comfort women” agreement was a relief to the US, not because it sided with revisionist Japanese thinking about history but because it held hope for two things: 1) a trilateral alliance to face the urgent threat from North Korea and the challenge of managing China’s rise; and 2) a shift in consciousness in Japan and South Korea away from mutual distrust to allow for the two societies to get to know each other as they are today with shared democratic values, and put historical prisms aside. As Nishino Junya argued in June, looking through the poll results, there is much in common in views of the outside, and through citizen-level exchanges, a qualitative shift in the structure of bilateral relations is needed and could find room to take shape.27

The apparent logic behind Moon’s Japan policy can be summarized as the following. First, South Korea is a deeply divided country between progressives and conservatives, and tainting the opposing side as the heirs and beneficiaries of the shinilpa can tilt the political balance sharply, given the broad consensus on national identity issues related to Japan. Second, the conservatives, 33 percent of whom responded to the poll that they trust Japan in contrast to only 12 percent of progressives, can be outmaneuvered by rallying the country on this issue. Lastly, common cause with North Korea will be enhanced by reinforcing the image of a common enemy. The poll data offer grounds for drawing these conclusions, but Moon gambled in thinking that Japan would not be in a strong position to retaliate harshly at a time when his sinking popularity due to economic troubles and an impasse in diplomacy with North Korea and when Japan-US relations were much closer than ROK-US relations left him vulnerable. He could desperately seek US intervention to halt the tariffs on critical chemicals from Japan needed for Korean semi-conductors, but Trump was not supportive.

Yomiuri coverage of the poll blamed Korean progressives (25 percent of respondents versus 24 percent conservatives and 42 percent in the middle) for seeking to purge the shinilpa, not valuing the Japan-US-ROK triangle nor trusting Japan (12 percent versus 33 percent for conservatives). Whereas those in the youngest age bracket (19-29) are softer toward Japan and those in their 70s prioritize cooperation versus the threat from North Korea, the 586 generation born in the 1960s is found to be the crux of the problem, driven by historical consciousness.28 The only hopeful sign in the depressing poll coverage, showing a shift in Japanese views, is the assertion that even with deep historical divides, the two states should advance economic and cultural exchanges (Japan 52 and Korea 64 percent) although the numbers were lower than before. Japanese were coming to the conclusion that the historical gap made it hard to boost ties (42 versus 36 percent earlier).29

Kuroda Katsuhiro leads in attributing the trouble in bilateral relations to how Moon views Japan. He sees the historical focus of national identity as decisive, driving Moon to demonize Japan, even as Kuroda’s insistent critique of South Korea, puts national identity on top as the reason for responding.30 In support of that criticism, Sankei charged that an historically obsessed campaign to purge Korean schools of their Japanese legacy (school songs, names of principles on the wall, etc.) is proof of an obsession.31 Symbolic of antipathy, too, was Seoul’s ban on marine products from waters around eight prefectures hit by the nuclear disaster, tightened anew on June 1, 2019.

The Japanese response to South Korea was different in 2019 than in earlier downturns in mutual trust. The rise from 60 to an unprecedented 74 percent in one year in those who say they cannot trust the South is but one indicator.32 Coming after the 2015 “comfort women” agreement and in the midst of security challenges from North Korea and China, for which Seoul’s role is suspect, the feeling that South Koreans cannot accept the peace-boosting steps of postwar Japan and its contributions to the international community, but are driven to blacken their country’s image, is now overwhelming. They are blinded to the true identity of Japan, not in defense of its prewar history, as Japan’s far right has sought, but to protect the current identity in which they take pride.

The conservative-progressive divide: economics in the forefront

Japanese conservatives and progressives sharply diverge on the merits of the trade restrictions imposed on South Korea. Conservatives praise the move as legal and a reflection of the South breaking its bilateral promise and exercising poor control on its exports with strategic value, and progressives see it as a cynical violation of free trade principles for political ends. The business community (Nikkei) agrees with the progressives, blaming Abe for using trade policy as a tool for international politics.33 Given public antipathy toward South Korea, Abe’s move would be judged less by the merits of the arguments than by current Japanese emotions toward the target.

Insisting that Moon has the responsibility to restore trust, and warning that Japan may go further by removing South Korea from the “white country” list as another blow to its exports to Japan,34 many assume that Moon has no recourse, no alternative suppliers can be found, and Korean company heads are looking to Japan for a way out.35 The progressive side found Abe’s move to be hypocritical just after he had stood firmly against protectionism at the G20, exacerbating the US-launched “Huawei shock” with Japan’s own “Samsung shock” through double standards.36

The Trump factor: identity, economics, and security

Donald Trump humiliated Abe Shinzo in his trip to Japan and South Korea only a month after Abe had pulled out all stops to host Trump and give him the high honor of being the first foreign leader to meet with Emperor Naruhito at the commencement of the Reiwa era. He unsettled the Japanese by questioning the mutual defense treaty (i.e., Japan would not come to the aid of the United States if it were attacked and instead would “watch it on a Sony television”); he blocked a statement on climate change that Abe had expected to make a cornerstone of the G20 consensus; he overshadowed Abe with his summits with Vladimir Putin as well as Xi Jinping, undermining values diplomacy also by his warmth to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, whom much of the world blamed for ordering the grisly murder of a Washington Post columnist; and he refocused the high-priority task of denuclearizing North Korea on his own camaraderie with Kim Jong-un, inviting North Korea’s leader to meet and greet at the DMZ just a day later. If Abe has garnered the reputation as the most obsequious world leader in catering to Trump, he is also the most “proactive” Japanese prime minister since 1945 in forging diplomatic initiatives. Is the result in the summer of 2019 more or less autonomy from the United States under Trump?

The US image has shifted somewhat from benefactor to bully. “Buy American” is a cudgel to act under threat. In December 2018 Japan ceased assembling F35s, as was agreed in 2011, instead agreeing to import the complete aircraft, under a cloud where the real reason is left unclear, said Sankei.37 Similarly, the Kantei made decisions about purchasing the Aegis Ashore system, which aroused dissatisfaction in the Defense Ministry and the LDP as well as the local areas to host the Aegis Ashore. Clearly, some do not want the future of Japan’s security to be so US dependent. The two sensitive topics of cars and agriculture were being raised in preparations for trade talks, also keeping Japanese on edge.38 Trump’s attacks on the Japan-US security treaty as unfair were viewed by progressives as a ploy to extract more money from Japan, which provides the land, suffers from noise, accidents, and crimes by US soldiers, especially in Okinawa, and has a constitution that limits fully joining the US. Thus, Trump misunderstands the treaty, and Japan’s government should explain it, readers are told.39 Another response was that Trump is seeking to benefit in trade talks and to push Japan into buying more US weapons with his accusations.40

Trump kept putting more pressure on Japan: threatening vast increases in payments for forces stationed in Japan, warning of large tariffs on automobiles exported to the US if concessions in trade talks do not suffice, demanding Japanese naval vessels to patrol the Strait of Hormuz and other policy shifts toward Iran despite legal and policy hurdles in Japan,41and insisting that the existing bilateral relationship is unequal to the consternation of conservatives and progressives.42 The US focus on Iran rather than North Korea was troublesome. Sankei noted that Japan is close to John Bolton’s thinking on the North, but not on Iran, where he takes the hardest line, which could destabilize the Persian Gulf and leave Japan in a difficult position.43

Abe had claimed a special, sustaining personal relationship with Putin as proof of progress over five years in Japan-Russia relations, and in 2019 for the third year he made the case of extremely close personal relations with Trump—a honeymoon the likes of which had not been seen before in international society.44 Three summits in three months, five rounds of golf, countless phone calls, and no response similar to countries in the West about migrants and human rights appeared to put relations on the highest keel. Yet, Trump’s relentless pressure on Japan was reaching a point when claims of success were doubted. On the Japanese left concerns were mounting,45 but so too on the right.46 As had been the case with Putin, Yomiuri brushed such reservations aside,47 claiming that Japan-US relations have never been as good as they are today.48 For the left, defending international rules of free trade was at stake;49 for the right it was much more a matter of defending sovereign rights and aspirations for a stronger security policy (Sankei was eager to send ships to the Strait of Hormoz but nervous about Trump’s words on the alliance and hesitant about reacting strongly for fear China and Russia would benefit).50

The attack against Abe was sharpening on the left. Did he have a secret agreement with Trump to be revealed after the July 21 elections at the price of Japan’s national interests?51 Was he ready to act illegally by sending military escorts to support the US versus Iran?52 On the right there was concern too but not much blame placed on Abe. In his moves against Moon he could count on strong support, rekindling the enthusiasm of the  major part of his base. They were offended not only by history and identity issues but also by intensified monitoring of marine products from eight Japanese prefectures eight years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster from June 1.53 If Abe was preparing to yield to Trump in ways that could make him appear weak,54 he had, at least, found a target against whom many Japanese would rally, sustaining Abe’s rightist credentials.

Conclusion: Linkage between responses to Trump and Moon

Various possible linkages can be drawn: 1) Trump’s indifference to trilateralism and preference for Abe freed Abe to be more assertive; 2) Trump’s pressure on Japan and disorienting policies made it more important for Abe to buttress his national identity credentials by targeting Moon; 3) new US assertiveness toward China tilted the US toward Japan, leaving Moon more vulnerable to Abe’s aggressive moves; and 4) Moon’s obsession with improving relations with Kim Jong-un, although on the surface in accord with Trump’s wooing of Kim, left him isolated and vulnerable. In response to Trump’s visit with Abe, Korean and Japanese media both stressed how Moon was excluded, was not a mediator on North Korea after all, and would not be holding a summit with Abe at the G20, while Xi Jinping also had decided not to go to South Korea.55 When Moon went to Washington in April he was given only a few minutes of Trump’s time, unlike the many hours Trump spends with Abe. Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” united Tokyo and Washington, as it exposed Seoul’s wavering. Abe had gained confidence in Moon’s isolation by the G20 summit.

The often scarcely veiled message coming from Japan in the first half of the summer of 2019 has been not only to double down on support for US policies in the Indo-Pacific but also to stake out ground for Japan to exert leadership: continuing to woo Russia, deciding to punish South Korea, giving North Korea an opening to bring Japan into its diplomacy, meeting China halfway on ways to resist protectionism, making a last ditch effort to sustain Mongolia’s “third neighbor” strategy; and responding vigorously to India’s regional realignment. Criticism of Trump and his policies in the region was subtle, and on some matters Abe reinforced the US agenda, even as the thrust of Japan’s policies in June and July 2019 was to capitalize on the vacuum left by Trump as well as on the backlash among other countries trying to hedge against the new US unilateralism.

The economic dimension is where Tokyo found Seoul most vulnerable and itself most in need of diverting attention. Hit by Trump’s demands for a trade deal and Trump’s trade war with China, Abe could make Moon pay for the fines being imposed on Japanese companies for wartime labor coerced from Koreans while showcasing pro-active moves in the face of passivity before Trump. On the security dimension, Abe’s resentment over Moon’s refusal to address China’s aggression and downplaying of North Korea’s threat coupled with anger over military direct affronts toward Japan led him not to fear Moon’s retaliation for trade restrictions by cutting GSOMIA, knowing that Moon would thereby arouse a US response on Japan’s side. National identity was at stake too for Japanese conservatives, believing that the US-Japan gap could, in spite of Trump’s provocations, be managed, the Sino-Japan gap had narrowed enough to be kept on the sidelines, and the Japan-ROK gap was now so serious and amenable to action that Abe had a golden opportunity to rally his nation, isolate Seoul, and weaken Korean progressives.

1. Yomiuri Shimbun, August 8, 2019, digital.

2. Asahi Shimbun, editorial, July 1, 2019, p. 6.

3. Asahi Shimbun, July 2, 2019, p. 3.

4. Sankei Shimbun, June 30, 2019, p. 7.

5. Yomiuri Shimbun, July 6, 2019, p. 2.

6. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 14, 2019, p. 9.

7. Tokyo Shimbun, July 5, 2019, p. 7.

8. Yomiuri Shimbun, July 7, 2019,  p. 7.

9. Yomiuri Shimbun, June 29, 2019, p. 7.

10. Tokyo Shimbun, July 2 2019, p. 1.

11. Asahi Shimbun, July 2, 2019, p. 2.

12. Tokyo Shimbun, July 3, 2019, p. 5.

13. Ibid.

14. Yomiuri Shimbun, July 2, 2019, p. 7.

15. Yomiuri Shimbun, July 2, 2019, p. 1.

16. Sankei Shimbun, July 3, 2019, p. 1.

17. Asahi Shimbun, July 3, 2019, p. 4.

18. Ibid., p. 12.

19. Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2019, p. 2.

20. Tokyo Shimbun, July 5, 2019, p. 3.

21. Sankei Shimbun, July 11, 2019 and July 13, p. 1.

22. Sankei Shimbun, July 11, 2019, p. 1.

23. Yomiuri Shimbun, June 11, 2019, pp. 16-17.

24. Ibid., p. 1.

25. Ibid., p. 17.

26. Ibid., p. 16.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., p. 3.

29. Ibid., p. 17.

30. Sankei Shimbun, July 2, 2019, p. 5.

31. Sankei Shimbun, July 8, 2019, p. 1.

32. Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2019, p. 3.

33. Sankei Shimbun, July 11, 2019, p. 6.

34. Yomiuri Shimbun, July 6, 2019, p. 3.

35. Sankei Shimbun, July 11, 2019, p. 6.

36. Tokyo Shimbun, July 2, 2019, p. 3.

37. Sankei Shimbun, July 13, 2019, p. 3.

38. Sankei Shimbun, May 26, 2019, p. 3.

39. Tokyo Shimbun, June 29, 2019, p. 5.

40. Asahi Shimbun, June 30, 2019, p. 31.

41. Asahi Shimbun, July 11, 2019, p. 3.

42. Sankei Shimbun, July 3, 2019, p. 8.

43. Sankei Shimbun, July 11, 2019, p. 9.

44. Tokyo Shimbun, June 17, 2019, p. 4.

45. Asahi Shimbun, June 3, 2019, p. 7.

46. Sankei Shimbun, May 19, 2019, p. 3.

47. Yomiuri Shimbun, May 27, 2019, p. 3.

48. Ibid., May 28, 2019, p. 7.

49. Asahi Shimbun, May 26, 2019, p. 8.

50. Sankei Shimbun, June 28, 2019, p. 2; July 13, 2019, p. 2.

51. Tokyo Shimbun, July 13, 2019, p. 2.

52. Tokyo Shimbun, July 11, 2019, p. 3.

53. Yomiuri Shimbun, May 31, 2019, p. 2.

54. Tokyo Shimbun, July 13, 2019, p. 2.

55. Sankei Shimbun, June 3, 2019, p. 7.

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