On Jan. 24, after he announced his plan to attend the PyeongChang Olympics opening ceremony, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, smiled and told his aides: “The Abe style is to meet and talk in person when one has comments or complaints to make.” He indicated that he would meet with ROK President Moon Jae-in, 65, and ask him to adhere to the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue after Moon voiced the criticism that the agreement is “seriously flawed.”
Abe agonized over this decision. In December, he asked a senior Foreign Ministry official who came to the Kantei: “What do you think?” Public sentiment in Japan had worsened after Moon’s statement. Many in the government grew wary of Abe’s visit to the ROK.
Even after Abe decided to go to PyeongChang, a senior administration official said: “The ROK is a country that is merely using Japan. You can’t expect anything in return. If the Prime Minister asked me, ‘What do you think?’ today, I would still tell him I’m against the trip.”
Political maneuvering was rife in the ruling parties with politicians making bids to make their presence felt.
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, 78, who has built good relations with the ROK, told his aides in early January: “Precisely at a time like this, it would be a good idea for the Prime Minister to go to the PyeongChang Olympics.” An aide to Nikai asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, 69, about Abe’s thinking on Jan. 11. When Suga told him “he has not decided,” this aide felt that a trip to the ROK was possible. Nikai said at a news conference on Jan. 16: “We will make efforts to enable him to go,” reflecting his reading of the turn of the tide.
Komeito also jumped on Nikai’s remark. Its leader, Natsuo Yamaguchi, 65, had met with Moon last November to lay the groundwork for Abe’s visit as a ruling party leader. Komeito Secretary General Yoshihisa Inoue, 70, met with Nikai on Jan. 17. The two agreed to make efforts to enable Abe to make the visit.
The LDP conservatives were opposed to the visit. House of Councillors member Masaaki Akaike, 56, stated furiously at a meeting of LDP divisions concerned with foreign policy on Jan. 24: “What can we get from his visit to the ROK? The Prime Minister shouldn’t go.” Many participants in this meeting voiced objections and no one supported the visit. When Yasufumi Nakasone, 72, met with Abe at the Kantei on Jan. 25, he told him: “Everyone strongly opposed the visit,” describing for him the turbulent meeting on the previous day.
Actually, on the day before the meeting, Abe was informed by a Diet member close to him that he would attend a party meeting and voice his opposition to the visit. Abe responded: “Oppose as much as you like.” He calculated that by defying opposition in making his trip, his meeting with Moon would have greater impact. Abe will be going into the meeting with a strong sense that people are watching him at home.