Abe’s reshuffle designed for constitutional revision: experts
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent cabinet reshuffle, keeping his supporters in key ministerial posts, was likely aimed at seeking constitutional reform, analysts said.
Abe replaced 17 ministers out of 19 posts in his Cabinet on Aug. 11, appointing former Foreign Minister Taro Kono as defense minister and Toshimitsu Motegi as foreign minister. Along with the two aides, Abe also appointed Shinjiro Koizumi, son of charismatic former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, as environment minister, Isshu Sugawara as economy minister and Koichi Hagiuda as education minister.
Kono, a former foreign minister, is expected to handle the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul and Tokyo, which has been one of the key issues between the two and the U.S. as it has been a symbol of trilateral military cooperation against the trilateral cooperation between North Korea, China and Russia.
Motegi, who is known as an economic expert with experience in the U.S. and has an extensive network with U.S. officials, was likely promoted for his role in promoting relations with the U.S., and is wellknown for having been a fundamentalist in the negotiation process.
Sugawara, a former vice trade minister, is expected to handle the trade disputes between the two. He is considered one of the conservative figures denying the role of the Kono Statement, a symbol of friendly relations between the two by acknowledging Japan’s coercion to colonize the Korean Peninsula.
Haguida, former deputy chief cabinet secretary and a close supporter of Abe, is expected to be in charge of revising the textbooks so that the country can include Japan’s territorial claim to Dokdo islets and misinterpreting Japan’s enslavement of Koreans during its 1910-45 occupation of Korea, which has created controversy with Seoul.
Also, Japanese media paid attention to Koizumi for becoming the third-youngest minister in Japan since World War II, considering him a prime minister hopeful for the future.
These figures are largely considered loyalists to Abe; many of them are core members of Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, which is known as an ultranationalist group with some 40,000 members including Abe, aiming to revise the Constitution so that the country can have an army and initiate war.
The group is known to consist of Abe’s close aides and powerful politicians playing leading roles in the Japanese political scene.
The reshuffle is largely seen as maintaining stability of his administration and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), given the fact that he hasn’t replaced core members including Finance Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and has appointed his closest aides. However, there have been rising concerns that the relations between Seoul and Tokyo would worsen as those figures appear to be supporting Abe’s hardline and conservative stances against South Korea over the handling of historical and trade issues created by the wartime forced labor issue since last year in particular.
The relations between Seoul and Tokyo have been deteriorating since last year. Japan decided in July to tighten trade controls on key materials being exported to South Korea and remove South Korea from its trade whitelist, citing security concerns involving North Korea. The move is seen as an apparent retaliation against the South’s Supreme Court ruling for Japanese firms to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. South Korea also pledged to terminate its military pact with Japan and revised its export and import measures for strategic materials against Japan, claiming to seek better control of exports to countries that violate international export control systems. Korea also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) last week over Japan’s “discriminatory” trade restrictions.
Experts say Abe’s reshuffle has been influenced by domestic politics rather than foreign affairs including relations between Seoul and Tokyo as he wants to prepare for the constitutional revision as well as the general elections in 2022. Abe’s term ends in September 2021 unless he changes the Constitution over the prime minister’s tenure.
“The reshuffle was largely affected by domestic issues including the government’s goal of the constitutional revision ahead of its general election. Tokyo wants to remain defensive or keep the current level of disputes when handling Korea-Japan relations, meaning the Korea-Japan relations are not their main agenda,” said Ha Jong-moon, professor of modern Japanese history at Hanshin University.
Stressing that the change was to keep consistency in policies, he said Japan doesn’t need to take a strong initiative to pressure South Korea before Seoul makes a move. “It might be hard for Tokyo to make such hardline moves as there are possibilities some actions could be related to another issue: trade disputes at the World Trade Organization,” he said.
Park Won-gon, professor of international politics at Handong Global University, pointed out that the reshuffle hasn’t shown any fundamental change and it will be a difficult task to resolve for any Japanese Cabinet, even for Abe.
“It is not likely that any reshuffle can largely change the current relations involving the forced labor issue between Seoul and Tokyo even though Abe holds the key to everything,” Park said.
He added that even though Abe is obviously tapping into historical revisionism, the key lies in the sex slavery and forced labor issues. Park urged the South Korean government to make more proactive moves in negotiating with Japan to restore bilateral ties to some extent.
Meanwhile, some experts expected that Japan’s reshuffle may have a negative impact on the bilateral relations in various fields, increasing the possibility of Japan taking additional economic retaliatory moves against South Korea.
Yang Kee-ho, professor of Japanese studies at SungKongHoe University, was quoted as saying to SBS CNBC, “Japan’s trade restrictions and other economic retaliation against South Korea will not be lifted in the short term. So far, it is hard to expect anything. There are still possibilities that Japan would take additional economic retaliatory measures.”
Ahn Duk-geun, professor of International Trade Law and Policy at Seoul National University, said, “Unless the two change the current situation, there are signs that Japan would raise the level of its retaliatory measures, creating concerns that things will get worse for the moment.”
Yang also urged the two countries’ politicians, especially Abe, to take advantage of the events such as the Japanese emperor’s enthronement on Oct. 22 and the termination date of GSOMIA on Nov. 22 to find some middle ground between the two countries.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, front row center, poses with his new cabinet, for a group photo at the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Sept. 11. Abe reshuffled his Cabinet, adding two women and the son of a former leader to freshen his image but maintaining continuity on U.S.-oriented trade and security policies.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returns to the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo, Sept. 11, after the attestation ceremony for new cabinet ministers at the Imperial Palace.