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The Peninsula

Will the Next President Climb the Mount of Distrust Between Korea and Japan?

Published December 2, 2021
Category: South Korea

Koreans head to the polls in March to elect the next president of the Republic of Korea. Current President Moon Jae-in is not permitted to stand again, and the election to choose his successor will be a close one. Polls conducted in recent weeks give Yoon Seok-youl of the conservative People Power Party a lead, but within the margin of error. Behind him is Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party. In addition to them are Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party and Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party.

Foreign policy and in particular, Korea’s approach to Japan, is an area where the leading candidates have shown some differences. “If I become president, I will set out to improve South Korea-Japan relations as soon as I take office,” Yonhap quoted Mr. Yoon writing on his Facebook page, shortly after Kishida Fumio was elected as prime minister in early November. He also said that his administration would reaffirm the landmark 1998 joint declaration between then President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō, during which both leaders agreed “to build a new Japan-Republic of Korea partnership towards the twenty-first century.”

Mr. Lee has taken a slightly different stance towards Korea’s island neighbor. At the Kor-Asia Forum in late November, he also said that he would build upon the Kim-Obuchi statement, according to The Korea Times. And speaking to journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, he added that it was a “misunderstanding” that he was a Japan hawk, according to Yonhap. But previously, Mr. Lee said he was did not support a trilateral military alliance with Tokyo and Washington, as part of his explanation of opposing the expansion of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. In early November, the South China Morning Post reported him asking “Is Japan a friendly country which is always trustworthy?”.

A conservative win would probably bring the greatest shift from the current administration of progressive Moon Jae-in. In his remarks at the Kor-Asia Forum, Mr. Yoon promised not to use Japan to advance his domestic political agenda. “I will not repeat the mistake of dividing the people into pro-Japan and anti-Japan, and leaving South Korea-Japan relations tied down in the past,” Yonhap quoted him saying. His remarks echo previous comments by Lee Jun-seok, the head of his People Power Party. He said in an interview with Japanese media that he hopes a Yoon administration would make a better case to the Korean public on handling historical issues and Japan. While Mr. Lee did not provide specific actions, experts say it could mean intervention in the legal cases concerned with addressing the legacies of the Japanese Empire. “Perhaps that would mean that a Yoon administration would be willing to file an amicus brief with the South Korean courts, to try to undo the court cases that forced Japanese firms to pay restitution to comfort women or forced labor during the occupation,” said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation. “Those were really the trigger of the downturn in recent years of the real deterioration in bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

Although he may be more skeptical on Japan than his opponent, some experts are hopeful that Mr. Lee will also work towards better relations with Tokyo. “I think if Lee Jae-myung wins, you’re still going to have a new president,” said Dr. Gregg Brazinsky of George Washington University. “He still may want to give a fresh look at the relationship.” Dr. Naoko Aoki of the University of Maryland notes that Mr. Lee has positioned himself as a pragmatic politician. “Depending on what the popular opinion is, and how strong of the backing he has, if he sees benefits in improving relations with Japan, that may happen,” she said.

But the popular opinion of Korea is to mistrust Japan, so it remains a significant domestic constraint on what the next president can do. A poll by Gallup Korea found that Prime Minister Kishida had a lower approval rating by Korean respondents than even North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un. Even if Mr. Yoon has been more consistent in his remarks on Japan, it is not clear that an election win would give the conservatives a green light to completely change Korea’s approach. Indeed, the conservative candidate echoed President Moon in saying he would seek a “sincere apology” from Japan over historical issues. “What I really would watch is how much of the rhetoric that each candidate is touting during the election transcends the election and stays as the administration policy,” said Yuki Tatsumi from the Stimson Center.

Going forward, Washington should be judicious in identifying how to approach Seoul and Tokyo in order to advance the interests shared by all three states. “I’ve heard from people inside the governments that the Biden administration is trying to take a more hands-on approach with our allies,” said Mr. Klingner. “But some have said in Japan, there’s a growing sentiment that the U.S. should stop trying to intervene.” Dr. Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute says the U.S. should be flexible in how it acts as a convening partner for Japan and Korea, and take advantage of other multilateral groupings that include both sides. “The more you can separate Korea and Japan, and yet have them move in the same direction,” says Dr. Cronin, “that’s a more durable way to achieve these kinds of footholds and climb and scale this mountain of distrust that grew out of decades of colonization and history and war.”

If leaders in both Seoul and Tokyo are interested in broaching the history issue, Ms. Tatsumi recommends that it be done quietly and in a way that does not hit the headlines. An example of this kind of channel is negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea over POW/MIA remains. Those talks have been much more sustainable because they “have been done quietly, without media spotlight, and with neither side trying to make any big, grand statement about it,” said Ms. Tatsumi.

Shared references to the 1998 joint declaration are likely viewed positively in Tokyo. “Yoon’s reference to the Kim-Obuchi agreement is, to me, the gold standard,” said Brad Glosserman, a visiting professor at Tama University in Japan. “That’s the basis and orientation of an enduring deal.” But Japanese officials have continued to reiterate that it is up to Korea to get the ball rolling on rehabilitating bilateral relations. “I really hope that Japan responds as well, too, if there is to be a South Korean overture, because Japan has been pretty rigid in its interactions with South Korea,” said Dr. Aoki.

Regardless of who the next Korean president is, he will have an opportunity to refocus the very critical relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. “I think we’re just going to have to work at it methodically, and take three steps forward and two steps back from time to time,” said Dr. Cronin. While it may be impossible to wipe the slate clean, he says a new leader in the Blue House should seriously consider ways to find cooperation with the relatively new counterpart in the Kantei. “If you can muffle the nationalist sentiments, and suppress your worse tendencies to distrust your neighbor, you could really cooperate in areas that would be beneficial for Korea and Japan, and for the United States,” said Dr. Cronin.

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

Photo from barnyz’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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