Is Tokyo ready to be responsible regional player?
When Park Geun-hye was elected president last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promptly and quite rightly sent his congratulations. Unfortunately, Park will find it hard to do the same for Abe, after seeing his Cabinet line-up unveiled Wednesday.
Quite frankly, Abe's first Cabinet is little other than an all-star list of revivalist politicians.
Eleven of 18 new secretaries are what Korean media call ''walking gaffe machines," who have done acts or made comments that hurt foreign people by denying or justifying Japan's historical misdeeds. Some have denied the existence of wartime sex slaves while others tried to visit Korea's East Sea islets to provoke Korean sentiments over a contentious territorial issue.
One has to look no further than the prime minister and deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, two political bigwigs known for their historical revisionism, for characteristics that will define Japan's new government.
In a strategic gesture of appeasement toward neighboring countries, Abe will reportedly focus on economic recovery until the election for the upper house in July and step up his right-leaning moves afterwards to make good on his election pledge of turning Japan into a ''normal country."
He'd better not.
It's good for the new premier, who is the first postwar Japanese leader given a second chance, to tackle economic problems to pull the archipelago out of a two-decade recession. The wisdom of his economic strategy itself is doubtful, returning mostly to the outdated 20th-century model of heavy spending on public works (Japan's expensive highways in remote mountains used chiefly by animals come to mind) and a beggar-thy-neighbor policy of currency depreciation though unlimited quantitative easing.
In a worst-case scenario, what happened across the Atlantic ― the U.S. printing of dollars has indirectly led to fiscal crisis in the eurozone ― might take place across the East Sea.
Despite potential adverse effects Japan's economic policy will have on Korea and China, there is little that the neighbors can do about it. However, the story could be totally different if and when Japan resorts to 20th century diplomacy, something which Tokyo appears set to do before long. Most worrisome in this regard is the two top postwar-generation politicians, Abe and Aso, are both grandsons of the leaders of Japan's militarist era but have a sense of pride, not guilt, about their grandfathers.
These regressive politicians do not necessarily represent the whole of Japan, nor should the seething historical and territorial disputes among three Northeast Asian countries dominate their trilateral relationship in the 21st century. We know there are a far greater number of conscientious Japanese people with correct historical awareness and moral courage to admit past mistakes. It is with this ''normal" part of Japan that Korea should enhance public diplomacy, on both governmental and private levels.
President-elect Park and her administration need to be doubly attentive in dealing with a totally new brand of cynical, chauvinistic Japanese leaders. Park was right to courteously reject Abe's premature olive branch and she should maintain both caution and principle in bilateral diplomacy.