Japan is returning its ambassador to South Korea Yasumasa Nagamine on April 4, nearly three months after temporarily recalling him in response to the installation of a girl's statue representing wartime "comfort women" in front of the Japanese Consulate General in Busan.
While the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has taken a hard-line stance toward South Korea, has demanded the removal of the statue and another similar statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, there are no signs of those structures being removed anytime soon. In the meantime, North Korea has repeatedly conducted ballistic missile launches and is suspected to be in preparation for another nuclear test.
With South Korea being in a transitional period for the next administration following political turmoil surrounding former President Park Geun-hye, Tokyo was apparently pressed into making concessions to Seoul in order to coordinate with the latter over such pending issues as their policy vis-a-vis North Korea and the comfort women issue. Some within the Japanese government and ruling parties have voiced frustrations, asking if there was any point in temporarily recalling Ambassador Nagamine and Consul General in Busan Yasuhiro Morimoto on Jan. 9.
On March 31, Prime Minister Abe met Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and other officials at the prime minister's office, where they decided to return Nagamine and Morimoto to South Korea. The prime minister accepted the plan for the government to announce the return of the two diplomats on April 3 in light of moves linked to South Korea's presidential election, such as the prospects of the country's largest opposition Minjoo Party of Korea and the second largest opposition People's Party nominating candidates opposed to the 2015 Japan-South Korea accord over the comfort women issue -- Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, respectively.
At a press conference on April 3, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered the reason for returning the ambassador and consul general to South Korea, saying, "We have made the decision as it has become clear that South Korea is moving into the next administration."
Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura, who serves as secretary-general of a suprapartisan legislators' group for Japan-South Korea relations, told reporters, "I think it was an eleventh-hour decision. South Korea's presidential election is already under way and the Japanese Embassy has a significantly important role to play, such as collecting a variety of information on South Korea. I hope they will firmly deal with the situation once again."
The government's decision in January to temporarily recall the envoys was aimed at pressuring the Park Geun-hye administration into removing the girl's statue in accordance with the December 2015 bilateral accord over the comfort women issue, which confirmed a "final and irreversible solution" to the issue. The Japanese Foreign Ministry had initially planned to return the diplomats to South Korea by the end of January at the earliest, but their stay in Japan was prolonged at the request of Prime Minister Abe. In a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun in late January, more than 70 percent of respondents showed support for the government's temporary recall of the diplomats, giving a stamp of approval for Abe's hard-line stance toward Seoul.
The turn of events came in February and March, when North Korea intensified its provocative stance by repeatedly carrying out ballistic missile launches, raising the need for Japan and South Korea to forge close collaborative ties. Coupled with the political upheaval in South Korea over the impeachment and arrest of Park Geun-hye, the Japanese government and ruling parties were forced to consider measures to address the situation but were divided over whether to return the diplomats to South Korea.
In the meantime, the foreign ministries of Japan and South Korea were looking into the best timing for returning the Japanese diplomats to Seoul and Busan. Foreign Minister Kishida met South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se in Germany on Feb. 17, where Kishida told Yun, "Failure to keep a promise between countries on the grounds of domestic affairs would bring no benefit to the South Korean government," urging Seoul to show a path toward resolving the girl's statue issue. In response, Yun stated that the installation of the statue was inappropriate. Prior to their meeting, South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling on the city of Busan and other local municipalities to remove the statue. However, local authorities didn't comply with the call, prompting Prime Minister Abe to maintain reservations about the fate of the diplomats, saying, "We should maintain a wait and see stance."
While the settlement of the girl's statue issue remained nowhere in sight, the South Korean presidential election process moved forward, prompting the Japanese government to decide to send back the diplomats to South Korea.
"It was good that we decided to return (Nagamine and Morimoto) to South Korea," commented Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "Was it necessary, in the first place, to recall them to Japan? If a similar case arose in the future, we should presuppose when to send back our diplomats to South Korea (before recalling them)," he said.
At a press briefing, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga announced that the government was going to demand Seoul implement the bilateral accord in a steady manner for the removal of the girl's statue and that it was continuing its suspension of talks on a bilateral currency swap agreement -- another measure that had been introduced to counter the installation of the girl's statue in Busan.
By keeping up its tough stance toward Seoul, Tokyo is pushing South Korea to work on settling the statue issue, while trying to contain a possible domestic backlash over the decision to return the envoys to South Korea.