Yoon’s ability to improve relations with Japan will be tested

It is commendable that there has been a reversal of the previous South Korean administration’s policy toward Japan, which was fixated on history issues, and a plan to improve bilateral relations based on a future-oriented approach has been put forward.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol delivered his first Liberation Day speech after taking office, during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Korean Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

“Japan is our partner as we face common threats that challenge the freedom of global citizens,” Yoon said in his speech, positioning Japan in such a manner and emphasizing that he will work for the early recovery and development of relations between the two nations. Regarding history issues, he pleaded, “When Korea-Japan relations move towards a common future and when the mission of our times align … it will also help us solve the historical problems that exist between our countries.”

The world has been shaken by the outrageous acts of powerful nations, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s intimidation of Taiwan. Yoon apparently sees Japan as a partner in together defending universal values such as freedom and democracy, and believes that good relations are essential.

There is an urgent need to resolve the issue of the lawsuits regarding former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula, which has become a stumbling block to Japan-South Korea relations. If, based on the Supreme Court of Korea’s ruling that finalized the order for Japanese companies to pay compensation, these companies’ assets are liquidated, the road to improved relations could be closed off.

The South Korean government must first move to freeze the liquidation process. It should appeal to public opinion on the importance of the Japan-South Korea relationship and work to persuade the plaintiffs to formulate a solution.

“Denuclearization of North Korea is essential for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and around the world,” Yoon said in his speech. The president also expressed his intention to provide large-scale economic assistance to North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons, but strengthening deterrence against nuclear weapons and missiles would have to come first.

The Yoon administration has decided to resume the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises held every summer and high-level U.S.-South Korean talks on the nuclear issue, both of which had been suspended under the previous administration.

The administration has also shown a willingness to correct the current irregular status of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), under which Japan and South Korea share classified defense information.

It makes sense for Seoul to improve its deterrence capabilities through its alliance with Washington and enhanced security cooperation with Tokyo. Cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea must be deepened against threats from China and North Korea.

It is a concerning factor that Yoon’s approval rating has dropped sharply. He had an approval rating of 52% when he took office in May, but the figure declined to 25% in three months. This is an unprecedented drop compared to previous administrations.

The rating has been affected by the fact that Yoon, a former prosecutor general, has been appointing people from the prosecutor’s office to top government jobs, as well as ongoing internal strife within his ruling party. Yoon’s lack of political experience may also be a factor.

Domestic political stability is essential for the promotion of foreign and security policies. Yoon’s leadership will be tested in the years to come.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 16, 2022)