22.07.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Republic of Korea and the Death of Shinzo Abe

ABE

The assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, 2022 is the first murder of a politician of this rank in the history of post-war Japan. Neither the assassination of Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma, hacked to death by right-wing schoolboy Yamaguchi Otoya in 1960, nor the coup and subsequent suicide of Yukio Mishima in 1970 can be compared to this.

It is clear that the news caused an outbreak of conspiracy theories, but our article is not about who stood to benefit from Abe’s death, and not even about the extent to which this will help the country’s current leadership to revise the interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, which prohibits Japan from having an army and waging war. In our text, we will talk about the Korean aspect of this murder.

Let’s start with how this death affected Seoul and Tokyo’s attempts to improve diplomatic relations, which current President Yoon Suk-yeol believes are at their lowest point since being established.

Yoon has repeatedly declared his desire to improve relations between “natural allies.” On the one hand, he is actively committed to strengthening bilateral and trilateral security cooperation (essentially directed against the DPRK). On the other hand, he is going to create structures to solve pressing problems, primarily related to the forced mobilization of Korean workers during the Second World War. This topic is more important today than the issue of “comfort women,” who are becoming fewer and fewer amid corruption scandals in the NGOs that curated them.

There are a number of obstacles, however. Historical issues and the general anti-Japanese narrative will not disappear in the blink of an eye, and Yoon’s ability to control the various NGOs that were paid for anti-Japanese propaganda under Moon is questionable.

That is why, although Yoon and Kishida met five times at the NATO summit, a normal exchange of views with the opportunity to talk on bilateral topics did not happen.

Yoon, however, tried to approach the matter with the utmost courtesy, immediately offering “condolences and consolation to the grieving family and the Japanese people over the death of the longest serving prime minister in Japan’s constitutional history, who was a respected politician.”

The government of the Republic of Korea also decided to send a higher level delegation to the funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than it had done previously in similar cases. If earlier delegations were headed by the foreign minister or the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Japan, this time the head of the delegation was Prime Minister Han Deok-soo. The delegation also included Vice Speaker of the National Assembly Chung Jin-suk and MPs.

On July 11, a memorial altar to Shinzo Abe, installed in Seoul by the Japanese Embassy, was visited by the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea Park Jin and the Speaker of the National Assembly Kim Jin-pyo, and on July 12 by Yoon Suk-yeol, who silently paid tribute and signed a book of condolences, where he noted, that he is praying for the former prime minister, who had dedicated himself to the prosperity and development of Asia.

On the same day (July 12), the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties paid tribute to the memory of the late former prime minister.

The visit by the president of Korea to the memorial of the late former prime minister of Japan is a rare event in the history of the two countries. In 2000, then Korean President Kim Dae-jung attended the funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, with whom they had announced the Korea-Japan Joint Declaration in 1998, where the two countries agreed on a future-oriented relationship. This is the only time that a sitting Korean president has attended the funeral of a Japanese prime minister. Prior to 2015, a number of former Japanese prime ministers attended the funerals of Korean presidents.

Against this backdrop, Yoon’s visit to Abe’s altar is interpreted as an attempt to maintain momentum for talks with Japan.

If we look at how the population of the Republic of Korea rather than the government reacted, then the most frequent type of comment was “a dog’s death for a dog” and recalling everything possible about the Japanese prime minister: origin (Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, in 1935 was engaged in the industrial development of Manchukuo, and then held ministerial positions in the government, was suspected of war crimes and was detained as a Class A suspect, but no charges were brought against him in the Tokyo Trial. Of course, this was presented as “the United States saved its protégé and made him the prime minister, during whose tenure Japan’s policy was the most pro-American”), a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, and a tough response to Seoul’s historical and territorial claims. After all, it was under Abe that the South Korean-instigated trade war between Seoul and Tokyo began.

Even The Korea Times (a moderately right-of-center newspaper) noted in an editorial that: “The abrupt death of Abe should not be used as a means to make Japan turn further to the right. Tokyo should not forget the untold sufferings Imperial Japan inflicted upon Koreans and other Asians before and during World War II.”

In another story, The Korea Times compared Abe’s death to the assassination of Hirobumi Ito, who was shot dead in 1909 by An Jung-geun, one of the main characters in the history of Korean independence in the early 20th century. They also recalled how, after the 1923 Kanto earthquake that leveled Tokyo, rumors spread widely that ethnic Koreans living in Japan were looting and setting fires, after which a wave of lynchings began. “Some put the number of victims as high as 20,000 ethnic Koreans who were killed.” The general mood is that if it suddenly turns out that Abe was killed by a “Zainichi” then it could be understood.

This moment is quite important – while the identity of the assassin and his motive were not yet known, a number of experts from among the author’s respondents froze in anticipation, thinking “heaven forbid, if a Korean did it.” In the end, Kim Ki-jong, who was sentenced to 12 years for an assassination attempt on the American ambassador, did so because his attempt to drop a piece of concrete on the Japanese ambassador against the backdrop of another escalation off the island of Dokdo ended in a suspended sentence. Another story may be recalled involving a South Korean “patriot” who tried to blow up the Yasukuni Shrine, but only managed to destroy one toilet stall, where the bomb was detonated.

It was in this context that the South Korean Consulate General in Fukuoka Prefecture posted a message on social media warning Koreans in Japan about their safety, mentioning the possibility of hate crimes. Citizens of the Republic of Korea were urged to stay safe and call the police or the consulate, “if needed“.

The message caused a misunderstanding among both South Koreans and Japanese. Japanese citizens complained that they were being treated as potential criminals by the Consulate General, and some called it hate speech. It was tough for South Koreans to understand the need for such a warning, given that the suspect who was caught in the act was Japanese, not Korean. In the end, the post was deleted.

In addition, authorities in the Republic of Korea, like the Japanese, began to remove instructions from the internet about creating homemade firearms, as well as review some security protocols that allowed the killer to approach his target. Nearly 1,000 cyber-cops, firearms experts, and volunteers are now scouring the internet for content that teaches how to make firearms to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

The Korean trace, however, was found and turned out to be unusual. The killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, almost immediately said that he was going to kill Abe because he was associated with a religious organization, whose name wasn’t immediately revealed. Allegedly caught up in the sect’s network, his mother donated a very large amount of money to it, after which the family slipped into financial and psychological trouble.

At this stage, many thought that we were talking about a closed Shinto sect like the Nippon Kaigi (banned in the Russian Federation), to which conspiracy theorists often associated Abe because of its revanchist orientation. Yet, it turned out that it was about another organization – the well-known “Unification Church” of Sun Myung Moon, established in the Republic of Korea in 1954.

Of course, after the death of its founder there was a schism, and we’re talking about the so-called “Universal Peace Federation,” which, de facto, is led by his wife. This association is also quite active in Russia, holding various conferences and cultural events with “donations from its members.”

The media found out that the church took hold in Japan in many ways thanks to Kishi Nobusuke, Abe’s grandfather and an influential politician. A research article published in 2001 by Richard Samuels states that the Unification Church “built its headquarters in Tokyo on land once owned by Kishi, and by the early 1970s, a number of LDP politicians were using Unification Church members as unpaid campaign workers. In exchange, politicians had to promise to visit the church’s headquarters in Korea and listen to Rev. Moon’s lectures on theology, and the church itself enjoyed protection from prosecution by the Japanese authorities.” By the 1980s, Japan reportedly provided some 80% of Unification Church revenues.

On July 10, 2022, the Unification Church confirmed that Tetsuya Yamagami’s mother was a member. However, it is no more likely that a direct connection between the church and Abe exists, as much as one doesn’t. As the sect said, “Former Prime Minister Abe expressed his support for the world peace movement that our organization promotes. He was never a member of our organization.”

Western conspiracy theorists cite as evidence Abe’s video message of congratulations during a Unification Church event on September 12, 2021. However, there were many speakers at the event, including Donald Trump and former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and the speech by the late ex-PM was a classic saying “we are for everything good against everything bad.”

In addition, the positions of the Unification Church in the Republic of Korea are now less strong than in other countries. Today it is more of an international organization, albeit based in the Republic of Korea with the support of the South Korean special services for anti-communist propaganda and political lobbying. That is why Professor Yuji Hosaka of Sejong University in Seoul believes that the likelihood of hate crimes based on Abe’s death is low. The Unification Church is not viewed by many Japanese as a religious sect from Korea.

Abe’s death has revealed the depth of contradictions in Japanese-South Korean relations.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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