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In 'year of the scandal,' Abe's woes could shake Asia

Scandals embroiling leaders in Japan and South Korea could undermine regional order

| South Korea
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference in Rome, March 21.   © Reuters

It is increasingly hard to keep up with this year's bumper crop of scandals. U.S. President Donald Trump continues to generate fresh controversy on an almost a daily basis. In France, the old-school "family values" presidential candidate Francois Fillon had been tripped up by an old-school family values-type scandal involving payments made by businessmen to his wife and children. Meanwhile, lurid details of sexual antics and lavish hospitality have emerged in the "Fat Leonard" corruption affair, in which at least 20 serving and former officers of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, including two retired admirals, are accused of accepting favors from a Malaysian defense contractor.

The human weaknesses of greed, lust and pride are immutable. In every time and place, the powerful periodically succumb to the temptations of power. Northeast Asia is no exception. Scandals have recently tarnished the reputations of two previously unassailable leaders, though the outcomes are likely to differ greatly.

Abe's image problem

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be well placed to quell the mini-typhoon of adverse publicity that has suddenly blown his way, though he will have to work hard to recover the aura of invincibility that he once projected. The blow to his popularity ratings -- which have dropped 5-10% in a single month according to newspaper polls, albeit from unusually high levels -- comes from a tangled tale of involvement with the Moritomo kindergarten, a private school which purports to instil traditional Japanese ethics in its tiny pupils.

In sworn testimony before the Diet, the school's proprietor was questioned about the sweetheart deal he secured on the purchase of public land from the local authorities and his relationship with Abe and his wife, Akie. No smoking gun appeared. Curiously, the accusation that has been leveled, which Abe denies, is that he or his proxies donated money to the school, rather than received any money from it -- in other words, the reverse of the financial flow in a typical political scandal.

As always with Japanese scandals, a fog of rumor swirls around the limited facts. Who was behind the freedom of information request that broke the story? Who has been leaking official information to the opposition parties? Conspiracy theorists would point to opponents of Abenomics in the bureaucracy and rivals within Abe's own Liberal Democratic Party.

In all likelihood, Abe's reputation for probity will remain intact as he does not appear to have done anything wrong. However, his judgment is now open to question -- as is that of his wife, who agreed to serve as honorary chairman of the kindergarten. Akie Abe had previously provided an interesting counterpoint to the image of her rather staid husband. With her restaurant business, distrust of nuclear power and support for medical marijuana, she constituted what has been dubbed an "intra-family opposition party." Getting involved with the dodgy and somewhat absurd operator of a patriotic school for under-sixes puts her in a less attractive light.

As things stand, Abe's term in office could run until 2021, which would make him the longest serving Japanese prime minister ever. Yet as the Japanese proverb says, in politics "a step ahead is all darkness." If his stint in power were to come to a premature end, the likely result would be political instability, confusion about economic policy and strategic uncertainty that could alter the entire balance of power in the region.

Across the water in South Korea, the country's first female president, Park Geun-hye, found herself in much more serious trouble. She was recently impeached for abuse of power and is still under police investigation. The accusation is that she colluded with her long-time friend and reputed shaman, Choi Soon-sil, to channel money from chaebol conglomerates to foundations under her control.

Apart from the detail that Ms. Choi was supposedly in communication with Park's long-dead mother, this is a conventional political scandal in which money flows from corporates to politicians in order to influence policy in their favor. There is a thin line between lobbying and bribery and in this case, South Korea's constitutional court ruled that it had been breached. The consequences, though, are potentially momentous. Park -- while bowing to emotional nationalist opinion, especially in regard to historical grievances with Japan -- was squarely in the pro-U.S., anti-North Korea tradition established by her father, strongman Park Chung-hee, who studied at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy and was commissioned as a lieutenant.

Mad about THAAD

The great strategic question for South Korea is how it will position itself in the struggle for influence between China and the U.S., which is likely to be the defining feature of the region's geopolitics for decades to come. Under Park, the tendency was always going to be to stay close to American power. Hence her decision to adopt the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. The actual deployment appears to have been expedited after Park's impeachment -- THAAD equipment started to arrive in South Korea in early March.

The Chinese response has been typically aggressive. South Korean exports to China have been subject to sudden restrictions; the flow of Chinese tourists has turned to a trickle; South Korea's Lotte group, which agreed to host the THAAD on the grounds of its country club, has seen over 60 of its retail operations in China shut down by the authorities. Beijing has even banned South Korean boy bands, much beloved across the region.

With the left-leaning Democratic Party likely to supply the successor to Park, the question now becomes whether the THAAD deployment will be frozen or rescinded in the face of Chinese pressure. All three of the party's main candidates favor a softer line toward North Korea, which is likely to put them at odds with the Trump administration and Japan. The front-runner, Moon Jae-in, was formerly chief of staff to the strongly left-wing President Roh Moo-hyun -- who once declared that "the two biggest security threats in Asia are America and Japan." Moon has criticized the way Park handled the THAAD issue, but has yet to clarify his own view on deployment itself. Of the other two candidates, one is pro-THAAD and the other strongly opposed.

Park has shown that scandals are not an exclusively male preserve. In so doing she has reduced the support ratio of her mainstream conservative party to single digits and left the country's strategic situation worryingly fluid.

The main beneficiaries of her removal are China and North Korea. Likewise, dislodging Abe would be a major boost to China's drive for regional hegemony.

Scandals are as intrinsic to democratic politics as fouls are to soccer. Sometimes they are entertaining. Sometimes they are disturbing. And sometimes they have unexpectedly damaging long-term consequences.

In non-democratic states too, the powerful are prone to abuse the privileges of power, but the result is rarely revealed to public view. Since no mechanism exists for remedying the problem peacefully, the abuses continue to mount up, often for a very long time, until the system finally collapses under their weight. Ultimately, the occasional ventilation of human weakness is far healthier than pretending it does not exist.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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