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Abe prioritizes Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation in decision to go to PyeongChang Olympics

By political reporters Hiroshi Tajima, Ryosuke Okada

 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics starting in the ROK on Feb. 9. He gave priority to Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear arms and missile issues after careful consideration even amid increasingly strong reactions in Japan to the ROK government’s handling of the comfort women issue.

 

On the morning of Jan. 23, the day before his announcement, Abe told a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Diet member close to him: “Public opposition to the ROK visit will actually serve as pressure on the ROK, so it’s okay to raise objections.”

 

A meeting of LDP conservatives was scheduled for the morning of Jan. 24. As a matter of fact, all 15 lawmakers who spoke up at the meeting objected to Abe’s attending the Olympics opening ceremony, claiming “this will cost us the people’s support.”

 

A senior LDP official suggests that “by making the decision amid strong criticism, he was probably trying to make his visit more valuable to the ROK.”

 

ROK President Moon Jae-in had been very eager to have Abe attend. He invited him at their first summit meeting last July and repeated his invitation during a teleconference last November. Abe deferred giving an answer. This was partly because the ROK was in the process of reviewing the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue. On the other hand, there was also optimism in the government that “the ROK would not be able to scrap the agreement while inviting him to the Olympics.” One senior government official reveals, “The prime minister had actually been keen on making the visit from the beginning.”

 

However, Moon’s news conference on Jan. 10 held after the review of the bilateral agreement came as a surprise. While he did not demand renegotiation of the accord, he asked Japan to apologize once again and sought “a solution based on the principles of truth and justice,” calling on Japan to take additional measures.

 

Public opinion in Japan soured considerably in light of Moon’s statement that seemed to repudiate the Japan-ROK agreement. A close aide to Abe advised him, “Public opinion will be very negative if you visit the ROK under the circumstances, so there is no merit in making the visit.”

 

However, at this time, the U.S. government informed the Japanese government of President Trump’s intent to send Vice President Mike Pence to the Olympics opening ceremony, saying, “Japan and the U.S. should participate in the Olympics together and confirm their cooperation with the ROK in dealing with North Korea.”

 

The ROK had already begun to adopt a conciliatory stance at the North-South ministerial talks starting on Jan. 9. A Kantei source explains that the significance of the ROK visit is that it is based on the desire “not to spoil the Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation.”

 

With regard to the ROK’s stance on the bilateral agreement, Abe told his aides that he “would have to directly put pressure on Moon to keep the ROK’s promises.” He was conscious of the need to hold a summit meeting during the trip.

 

On Jan. 12, just before he departed for his trip to Eastern Europe, Abe made up his mind to visit the ROK and secretly instructed administration officials to make preparations.

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