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The Peninsula

Can Yoon Make Progress on Relations with Japan?

Published May 4, 2022
Category: South Korea

Yoon Suk-yeol emerged victorious in the Korean presidential elections held in March. Among his campaign promises was to fix bilateral relations with Japan. Tokyo seems to be interested in the same, with government officials warmly welcoming a visiting delegation sent by the recently elected president. “We have no time to spare in improving Japan-South Korea relations,” said Prime Minister Kishida when meeting with National Assembly Deputy Speaker Chung Jin-suk and his colleagues. Although there has been much optimism towards renewed ties, experts warn there remain challenges for both sides.

Although Japan is still a sensitive topic, public opinion polls suggest that Korean society is interested in rehabilitating the bilateral relationship. In early April, a survey commissioned by the Federation of Korean Industries found 75% of respondents supported such action by the Korean government. “I think there is a general consensus in South Korea that Korea-Japan ties have to be repaired or restored to pre-Moon days,” said Minseon Ku, a PhD candidate at The Ohio University.

However, support for addressing relations with Japan does not correlate to strong support for President-elect Yoon. He defeated his rival, Lee Jae-myung, by only 0.8% of the votes. “He will face an uphill battle in implementing a lot of his policies given the deeply divided and strongly partisan rift in South Korean politics right now,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The situation remains volatile, as Mr. Klingner adds: “All it takes is someone in Japan or South Korea making a singular remark to torpedo initiatives at improving relations.”

One diplomatic gesture President-elect Yoon could take would be a trip to Japan. Dr. Michael Auslin, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, says a goodwill tour of Japan would face domestic opposition, but would not be as risky as making some kind of new commitment or announcement. “What is needed is a dramatic breakthrough to show that he wants to inaugurate a new era for Korea-Japan relations,” he said. Former President Barack Obama’s trip to Hiroshima and former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s trip to Pearl Harbor are examples of such “dramatic attempts to overturn the past,” said Dr. Auslin. “It really just depends on how confident he is that this would be politically as well as diplomatically advisable.”

Working on trade issues is an area where more concrete action could be taken. In an April survey by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a very slim 45.3% majority of respondents said they expected bilateral relations would get better under the Yoon administration. Meanwhile in Japan, PM Kishida has announced his desire to introduce a “New Capitalism.” While details are sparse, Dr. Alexis Dudden, a fellow at the Wilson Center, says it will most likely have an international component, which means Tokyo has reason to look for partners in Korea. “The similarities with the forms of capitalism in both countries far outweigh the differences,” she said. In her view, it would be a mistake for Tokyo not to take advantage of the synergy between businesses in both Korea and Japan. “I think [it] won’t work for Japan if you turn your back on South Korea and immediately engage only far afield,” she said.

It takes two to tango, and it remains to be seen how Japan will contribute towards building an era of good feelings. Any outreach by the Yoon administration will go nowhere if it is met by silence on the part of the Kishida government. “I think it’s important to emphasize both Japan and Korea need to make a gesture,” said Dr. Celeste Arrington, a professor at George Washington University. “Because domestically in Korea, it’s going to be a lot easier if Japan is also seen as doing something.” She suggests that Japan could send an appealing representative to President-elect Yoon’s inauguration, or allowing Korea to participate in the next Quad summit as possible ways to signal its openness to healing the breach in relations. “You have to wonder, is it really in Tokyo’s interest not to make those gestures?” she said. “They can go a really long way to healing the relationship.”

Without a career in politics, it’s not clear if President-elect Yoon has the acumen needed to win political battles and forge legislative partnerships. The new president has announced that he would move his office out of the Blue House, a decision that has rankled even his supporters. “Yoon has already demonstrated the risks of missteps in terms of expending political capital on the wrong issues,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “His relative power as president will depend on how he navigates alliances and relationships, both within his own party and across the board.”

The area President-elect Yoon does have experience in is the judiciary, where there are pitfalls of a different sort. Japan has strongly objected to Korean court decisions against Japanese companies for forced labor during the occupation of the Korean Peninsula. But Dr. Arrington points out that political interference in the court system contributed to the downfall of the conservative Park Geun-hye government. “It’s like a lightning rod that you wouldn’t want to touch,” she said. “Being seen as interfering in the judiciary could be really risky politically domestically.”

President-elect Yoon could also go too far in reaching out to Japan. Korean conservatives have floated anti-feminist policy proposals, and Dr. Dudden is concerned about how that may intersect with the Yoon administration’s foreign policy. Tokyo has strongly objected to Korean statues depicting comfort women, which she says have become associated with Korean feminists. “I’m a little worried that the whole statue thing might reemerge if certain hardliners in Tokyo push for it,” said Dr. Dudden. With news of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, it would be regrettable to remove the statues which call attention to past and present victims of sexual violence. “I strongly, strongly hope that the incoming Yoon administration understands the significance of the peace statues,” said Dr. Dudden.

Looking forward, the U.S. will have its own chance to play a constructive role between its two critical Indo-Pacific allies. The White House announced that President Joseph Biden will visit Korea and Japan from May 20 to 24, holding meetings with both leaders. Although a trilateral summit has not been announced, Mr. Klingner said that Korean officials he has spoken to would be amenable to such a meeting. In particular, a trilateral summit composed of the foreign and defense ministers would be most useful. A so-called two plus two plus two “would be useful to send a signal that the three countries are working to address common concerns, challenges, and threats, and it would also enable more trilateral creation of strategies and policies,” said Mr. Klingner.

While undoubtedly difficult, experts say a cautious approach towards Japan may be most successful for the new Korean leader. Dr. Auslin uses a baseball metaphor to describe the opportunity before President-elect Yoon. “He should be thinking about hitting a lot of singles, maybe a double or two, to get men on base,” he said. Rather than taking a chance on striking out, President-elect Yoon should aim to get a few small runs on the board first, before taking larger risks. “We want to make sure that we’re being responsible, because the potential gain over the long run is enormous,” said Dr. Auslin.

Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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