The Kishi Effect: A Political Genealogy of Japan-ROK Relations

By Delury, John | Asian Perspective, July-September 2015 | Go to article overview

The Kishi Effect: A Political Genealogy of Japan-ROK Relations


Delury, John, Asian Perspective


WHEN PRIME MINISTER ABE SHINZO VISITED WASHINGTON AFTER returning to power in 2013, he was asked to reflect on the frayed state of Japan's relations with Seoul. "I met President-elect Park Geun-hye twice before, and had a meal with her actually," he answered. "And then, her father President Park Chung-hee was close friends with my grandfather. President Park Chung-hee was pro-Japan. . . . Although we do have the Takeshima issue [the territorial dispute over islands known to Koreans as Dokdo], I would like to try to work to resolve these issues and have a good relationship with Korea" (Abe 2013). Abe's maternal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke and Park's father were indeed close political allies. Abe assumed, as did many onlookers, that this deep family bond would help bring Tokyo and Seoul closer.

Yet quite the opposite occurred in the first two years after Abe and Park took power in early 2013. Indeed, the two leaders refused to set foot in the other's country, and only met when it was virtually impossible not to-on the sidelines of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, for example, when US president Barack Obama leaned hard on both allies to sit side by side (they sat with him in between). South Korea-Japan relations went into a kind of deep freeze, one of the worst periods since normalization in 1965. Abe seemed to South Koreans to be going out of his way to antagonize them: undercutting the validity of the Kono and Murayama statements of apology for wartime sexual slavery- even as the number of elderly Korean "comfort women" dwindled, arguing in the Diet that "the definition of aggression has yet to be established," and visiting Yasukuni, where Class A war criminals are enshrined. Park was depicted as attacking Abe behind his back in her meetings with world leaders, and books on "why Koreans are anti-Japanese" lined the shelves of Japanese bookstores.

As the relationship deteriorated, it was also notable that neither leader seemed terribly distraught over it. Abe and Park's foreign policy priorities clearly lay elsewhere in Asia. Park's primary goal was to improve relations with Beijing, while Abe made a big push to strengthen political and economic ties in Southeast Asia- including Australia and Taiwan. Nearer to home, Abe confounded observers by engaging Pyongyang in a bold effort to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents- even openly stating his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un if necessary. Park for her part also indicated she was open to visiting Pyongyang for what would be the third inter-Korean summit, while simultaneously stating she saw no reason to go to Tokyo for a summit with Abe.

Kim Jong-un meanwhile was keeping a distance from his country's traditional ally, China, and Xi Jinping displayed palpable annoyance at the young North Korean leader (despite the bond established in the 1980s between Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, and Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung). To make matters stranger still, Xi hosted Park with great fanfare on a state visit to Beijing in June 2013 and then made a reciprocal state visit to Seoul the following year. The traditional structure of international relations in Northeast Asia seemed to have jumped down the rabbit hole, and turned upside down.

In light of the prominent family histories of Northeast Asia's leaders, in particular the "close friendship" between Kishi and Park, these counterintuitive shifts in alignments call for taking a deeper look into the legacies passed on from their forebears. The tensions between Abe Shinzo and Park Geun-hye might make more sense when viewed through the prism of a reexamination of the nationalist conservatism of Park Chung-hee and Kishi Nobusuke, as well as their role in "normalizing" South Korea- Japan relations.

The salient question is what motivated Park and Kishi to push for normalization and stability in the South Korea-Japan relationship? To answer this, it is necessary to see the broader ideological arc to Kishi's and Park's political lives as dedicated to the pursuit of national prosperity, power, and prestige. …

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