New South Korean leader brings hope for improved ties with Japan

It is hoped that a change of government will pave the way for Japan and South Korea to rebuild their frosty relationship and build a foundation for cooperation to realize stability in East Asia.

Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party won the South Korean presidential election, edging out Lee Jae-myung of the leftist ruling Democratic Party. Yoon will take office on May 10, bringing back a conservative administration for the first time in five years.

Under the administration of President Moon Jae-in, real estate prices have soared and young people’s difficulty in finding jobs has worsened in South Korea, fueling discontent about widening disparities. Yoon, who called for a political overhaul, must have garnered many ballots from such frustrated voters.

However, it is hard to say that Yoon won support from a wide range of people even though he united the conservative base. During the election campaign, policy debate by candidates did not deepen. In the National Assembly, the People Power Party will be a minority ruling party.

Yoon served as prosecutor general until a year ago and will take office without political experience. What kind of policies will he hammer out in order to achieve national unity and stable government management? His ability will soon be tested.

Foreign and security policies are particularly important as the regional security environment has become increasingly severe.

North Korea has increased its nuclear and missile threats. China has also aggressively advanced its maritime activities in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Nevertheless, the Moon administration did not move in sync with Japan and the United States as it focused more on reconciliation with North Korea and economic ties with China.

On the other hand, Yoon has placed importance on the role of the U.S.-South Korea alliance in dealing with the North Korean threat and proposed the additional deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea. He has also acknowledged the significance of trilateral cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea.

Yoon needs to maintain such a stance and promote security cooperation with the United States and Japan.

The biggest challenge for him is apparently the Japan-South Korea relationship. After the South Korean Supreme Court issued a ruling, which shook the foundations of the bilateral relationship, in a lawsuit involving former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula, the two countries saw their ties continue to deteriorate, partly due to the Moon administration’s inaction.

During his election campaign, Yoon expressed his intention to tackle historical issues as well as improve economic and security cooperation between Japan and South Korea comprehensively. At a press conference after winning the presidential election, he also expressed his eagerness to break the impasse, saying, “I want to seek mutual cooperation for the future.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed his support, saying, “I look forward to the leadership of the president-elect.” He also said, “I will work closely to improve the relationship.”

Faced with the Ukrainian crisis, the unity of countries and entities that share the values of freedom and democracy faces a test. Japan and South Korea must proceed with dialogue with the understanding that they are on the same side.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 11, 2022.