President Yoon’s Speech: Make Trend of Japan-S. Korea Improvement Irreversible

It is a welcoming move that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol clearly expressed anew his stance of placing importance on Japan. Japan and South Korea must have a trend of improved relations take root and strengthen deterrence against the increasingly threatening North Korea.

The South Korean president delivered a speech at a ceremony commemorating March 1 Independence Movement Day against Japanese colonial rule.

Regarding Japan, Yoon declared, “Our two countries have become partners in the pursuit of common interests for global peace and prosperity.”

Using the opportunity of the 60th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea next year, Yoon said he hopes to take relations with Japan that share values such as freedom and human rights “to a higher level,” and he expressed his wish to further deepen cooperation between the two countries.

On the historical issues regarding Japan, he emphasized, “If [South] Korea and Japan build trust through mutual exchanges and cooperation and work together to resolve difficult challenges that history has left us, we will be able to usher in a new and brighter future for our bilateral relations.”

On the Independence Movement’s anniversary, which tends to stimulate anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea, it is highly significant that the president appealed to the public about the importance of building a future-oriented relationship with Japan. There was no mention of the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.

Yoon likely believes that progress in relations with Japan is essential for South Korea to play a role in regional and global stability.

North Korea has been stepping up its provocations, accelerating its nuclear and missile development, and now regards South Korea as its “principal enemy state.”

Japan, the United States and South Korea must strengthen their unity to deter North Korea. It is crucial for the three countries to expand joint exercises and promote information sharing on North Korean developments to be prepared for any contingency.

The Yoon administration has achieved some successes in diplomacy, including improved relations with Japan and the United States and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, a nation that is friendly to North Korea. However, at the same time, domestic politics are unstable.

Lately, Yoon’s disapproval rating has been higher than his approval numbers. This may be because effective measures have not been taken to deal with rising prices and the seriously declining birth rate, which are directly related to people’s lives.

As a general election approaches in April, the ruling People Power Party and the Democratic Party of Korea, which holds the largest number of seats in the parliament — and is the largest left-leaning opposition party — are competing neck-to-neck in terms of approval ratings. If the ruling party is defeated, the Yoon administration will inevitably become a lame duck.

In the past, many South Korean administrations have taken a hard-line stance against Japan due to internal political impasses. A change of government has sometimes set back the improvement of relations between the two countries. Yoon should persistently appeal to the public that a good relationship with Japan will benefit South Korea’s interests.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 4, 2024)