With main opposition candidate Yoon Suk Yeol elected as South Korea’s next president, the country’s relations with Japan are expected to improve once their long-stalled communications finally kick off, but history issues in times of war will likely continue to weigh on them, say foreign policy experts.
Given Yoon’s call for improved relations with Japan and the United States and the security dynamics triggered by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, he was a more favorable choice for Tokyo than the ruling party hopeful Lee Jae Myung, who was seen as inheriting President Moon Jae In’s policy focus on North Korea.
Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party speaks to party members on March 10, 2022 in Seoul, after claiming victory in the tight presidential election the day before. (Picture of swimming pool)(Kyodo)
Yoon, of the conservative People Power Party, said he would visit Japan after the United States once he becomes president and resume so-called shuttle diplomacy with Tokyo with leaders performing reciprocal visits – a practice that has stalled since 2011.
“When it comes to foreign and security issues, it’s obvious that Japan has more in common with Mr. Yoon than with Mr. Lee” of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said Yuki Asaba, a professor of Korean studies at Doshisha University.
Tokyo and Seoul could reaffirm that they are “important neighbors sharing core values and strategic interests,” as they have done in the past, Asaba said.
However, he added that Yoon’s willingness to work with Japan does not mean he will compromise on disputes over the history of the war and a pair of South Korean-controlled islets in the South Sea. Japan – issues that have plunged bilateral relations to the worst level in decades. .
With these contentious issues in mind, analysts believe Yoon will not forget the fact that a Russian military aircraft violated the airspace over the disputed islets, and that Chinese and Russian naval vessels traveled around the Japanese archipelago, apparently taking advantage of diplomatic divisions between the two neighbors. .
“Russia and China have created a fait accompli by taking advantage of deteriorating trilateral security cooperation involving Japan, the United States and South Korea,” said Kohtaro Ito, senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, a Tokyo think tank. .
“I guess Mr. Yoon thinks such a situation is not favorable for South Korea and East Asia,” said Ito, an expert on South Korean diplomacy.
Ito cited simmering tensions over the Taiwan Strait as another factor making Yoon believe that South Korea can no longer leave its relationship with Japan as it is.
Tokyo-Seoul relations soured under Moon after he effectively canceled a 2015 deal his predecessor Park Geun Hye’s administration struck with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to “definitively and irreversibly” resolve the problem of “comfort women”.
The term refers to those who suffered under the Japanese military brothel system before and during World War II.
Bilateral relations soured further after South Korea’s highest court in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation to requisitioned Korean workers.
Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party celebrates March 10, 2022 in Seoul after winning the tight presidential election the day before. (Picture of swimming pool)(Kyodo)
Japan dismissed the decision as a violation of international law, but the liquidation of assets the companies hold in South Korea is approaching, with one for the first batch possibly starting this year.
Comparing the liquidation to a “ticking time bomb” about to explode in a series, Asaba suggested that Yoon – who will be sworn in in May – and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should sign agreements as soon as possible on the areas in which they can cooperate so they can minimize the damage even if the liquidation of the first batch of assets held by the Japanese were to be imposed.
“Both should affirm at an early stage that they will work together in forward-looking areas without turning back even if the bomb were to go off,” he said.
Among the deal options are how to denuclearize North Korea, Japan’s push for South Korea to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Quad framework involving Japan, the United States, the Australia and India, as well as the re-establishment of visa-free exchanges. once the novel coronavirus pandemic subsides, according to Asaba.
The researcher also said Japan has the option of lifting export controls on semiconductor-related materials to South Korea as a “goodwill gesture.”
The export restriction was imposed in 2019, seen as retaliation for the Moon administration’s handling of the issue involving Korean wartime workers.
Still, there is a technical problem on South Korea’s side, with the Democratic Party dominating parliament, which means that any effort by Yoon to improve relations – including the possibility of proposing special legislation to solve the problem liquidation – is certain to be rejected.
Ito said the party would oppose Yoon’s every move, especially after a fierce presidential race.
Japan also faces an obstacle. Kishida, who played a major role as foreign minister in brokering the comfort women deal, argued that the onus is on Seoul’s side, and any movement against such a stance will be seen as Kishida’s pushback against South Korea, especially since the Japanese people’s sentiment towards South Korea has remained negative across the board.
With Japan’s House of Councilors elections slated for July, Kishida is unlikely to take such a risk until his ruling Liberal Democratic Party secures victory, allowing him to consolidate his leadership for the next three years.
Still, Asaba said better relations between the two US allies is something President Joe Biden’s administration hopes for as it faces an increasingly assertive China in the Western Pacific at a time when Russia is unilaterally trying to change the status quo on Ukraine by force.
Ito agreed on the importance of improving Tokyo-Seoul relations, saying, “It’s not just a relationship between the two countries. It’s a key relationship in the region, and it’s about what they will do to safeguard liberal democracy around the world as the Ukraine crisis has pulled the trigger.
“Japan cannot just continue to disagree with South Korea,” he said.
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