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Japan election

South Korea sees no good option among Japan LDP candidates

Neither Kono nor Kishida expected to improve Tokyo-Seoul relations

South Korean analysts are skeptical as to whether any of the candidates running for the leadership of Japan's ruling party will improve ties between Seoul and Tokyo. (Source photos by AP and Koji Uema)

SEOUL/TOKYO -- None of the four candidates running in Wednesday's election to lead Japan's ruling party are likely to break through Seoul and Tokyo's icy relationship, South Korean analysts say.

The two neighbors are at loggerheads over issues stemming from Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910 to 1945). They remain at odds over compensation for Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II, and the so-called comfort women who worked in Japanese military brothels. The sovereignty of the South Korean-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan -- known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan -- is also driving a wedge between the U.S. allies.

As these decadeslong disputes flare, they are hampering talks on a free trade agreement and South Korea's possible entry to the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Political observers in South Korea say it could be another two or three years before the countries can turn around their relations as there is no strong will on either side to break the impasse.

Lee Won-deog, a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University, said neither of the two favorites in the Liberal Democratic Party's leadership race, Taro Kono and Fumio Kishida, will have the political capital to pursue big changes in the relationship.

"Japan will not accept South Korea's stance on the laborers, and it is the same with the comfort women issue," Lee told Nikkei Asia. "South Korea holds the key on these matters."

Lee added that South Korea's presidential election in March will have a bigger impact on relations as Tokyo believes it is up to Seoul to move first on patching up ties.

Yoon Seok-youl, a presidential candidate for South Korea's main opposition conservative party, last week promised a better relationship with Japan, stressing the importance of a bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement (GSOMIA) -- which has been in doubt under the administration of President Moon Jae-in.

This relatively friendly position stands out as candidates typically talk tough on Tokyo. Even so, Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung, a front-runner in the governing Democratic Party's primaries, recently demanded that Japan apologize to former comfort women and ask their forgiveness.

As things stand, the race to become leader of Japan's ruling LDP is too close to call. Kono, the vaccine minister who previously served as foreign affairs and defense chief, is popular among party members, but Kishida, former LDP policy chief and foreign minister, appears to have more support among lawmakers, recent polls show.

Sanae Takaichi, a former internal affairs minister backed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and right-wing lawmakers, has made up ground during the campaign. Running last in the polls is Seiko Noda, the LDP's executive acting secretary-general.

Below is a roundup of how South Korean experts view the candidates, and what they have said on Japan-South Korea relations during the campaign:

Taro Kono

Kono is the son of Yohei Kono, who as the government's top spokesman in 1993 apologized for the military's abuse of Korean women during the war. South Korea welcomed that statement.

South Korean analysts have a good impression of Kono due to Yohei's legacy but are skeptical as to whether the son will follow in the father's footsteps.

"Kono said that he will succeed his father's legacy, but it won't be easy to keep his words," said Lee Bu-hyung, a director at Hyundai Research Institute. "He may not be able to take action to improve relations as he has little support within the LDP."

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said Kono has been hawkish on the wartime laborers issue. "Kono is known for his father's forward-looking statement on history but also for taking a tough stance on Korean court rulings in favor of wartime labor plaintiffs," the American scholar said.

Kono had some run-ins with South Korean diplomats during his tenure as foreign minister. In 2019, he dressed down then ambassador Nam Kwan-pyo over the labor issue.

During the campaign, Kono called South Korea "an important neighbor," saying Japan should make more of an effort so South Korea will understand the importance of Japan-Korea relations. But he has also criticized Seoul for running "a propaganda campaign" against Japan, adding that Tokyo needs to counter it by stepping up its own information dissemination.

Former South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, right, shakes hands with then Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on a deal meant to resolve a decadeslong impasse over so-called comfort women, in Seoul on Dec. 28, 2015.   © AP

Fumio Kishida

Kishida was foreign minister in 2015 when the Abe government signed a comfort women deal with the government of then South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Under the agreement, Seoul the following year set up a foundation to support surviving former comfort women using 1 billion yen (about $9 million) from Tokyo.

But President Moon Jae-in criticized the agreement when he came to power in 2017, saying it has "significant flaws." His government dissolved the foundation the following year.

"Kishida is seen as more dovish on foreign policy, but the 2015 agreement for comfort women survivors is not viewed positively in South Korea," Easley said.

Lee at Hyundai Research Institute objected to Kishida, saying he "has strong support in the LDP, but his policy is far different from our direction."

When asked recently how Tokyo can improve ties with Seoul, Kishida said, "The ball is in South Korea's court."

He called the Japan-South Korea relationship important but added "it is difficult to develop bilateral ties unless South Korea starts playing by the rules." He was referring to a 1965 agreement settling compensation claims as well s to the 2015 comfort women deal.

Sanae Takaichi

Takaichi, a hard-line nationalist, is seen in South Korea as the least likely to mend ties. She supports amending Japan's pacifist constitution, has argued that Japanese atrocities during the war are overstated and regularly visits Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 "Class A" war criminals are honored along with Japan's war dead.

Seo Kyoung-duk, a professor of liberal arts at Sungshin Women's University, criticized Takaichi as rude for saying South Korea should not build anything on the Dokdo/Takeshima islets.

Takaichi recently said that "Japan hurt the pride of Koreans when it annexed the Korean Peninsula and that the comfort women system caused sufferings to Korean people," adding that such things should never be repeated.

Seiko Noda

Lee at HRI said that although Noda is unlikely to be elected, she is the best option to improve ties.

Noda has said the countries should look to the future and work to create a positive environment for future generations. She argues there is too much of a focus on the past in South Korea, and the country needs to respect past agreements with Japan.

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