Defeat of South Korea’s Ruling Party: Negative Impact on Relations with Japan Must Be Avoided

With three years left in his term of office, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s political base has been shaken. It is hoped that this will not have a negative impact on Japan-South Korea relations.

In South Korea’s recent general election, Yoon’s conservative ruling People Power Party was defeated, obtaining a number of seats well below the majority in the parliament.

The leftist Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, gained seats and secured a solo majority. A new leftist party, the Rebuilding Korea Party, which has announced its intention to join forces with the Democratic Party, also made gains.

The ruling party held onto barely enough seats to block the opposition camp from voting to impeach the president, but Yoon will face an even tougher task than before in running the government with a minority ruling party.

The term of office for a South Korean president is five years and the president is not eligible for reelection. The defeat of the ruling party will inevitably accelerate the decline in Yoon’s political capital.

One concern is the impact this will have on Japan-South Korea relations. The improved relations with Japan, which the Yoon administration has constantly promoted since he took office, could be considered its biggest diplomatic achievement.

South Korea in March 2023 announced a solution to the issue of lawsuits involving former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula, thereby improving the Japan-South Korea relationship, which had deteriorated. A South Korean government-affiliated foundation would pay an amount equivalent to the compensation in the cases.

In response, the opposition parties criticized the solution idea as humiliating and too much of a concession. Looking toward the next presidential election, the opposition camp is certain to intensify its criticism of the Yoon administration as engaging in “humiliating diplomacy toward Japan,” claiming the “will of the people” was demonstrated in the election.

Japan-Korea relations were not a major issue in the latest election.

There is little indication that Yoon will change his policy toward Japan. It is hoped that Yoon will persistently appeal to the public that a good relationship with Japan is in the interest of South Korea.

As North Korea repeatedly launches missiles and tensions rise, the importance of Japan-South Korea relations is growing. It is essential for the Japanese government to continue diplomacy through reciprocal visits between the leaders in order to maintain the trend of improving relations.

The Yoon administration also faces a number of domestic policy challenges. The government has failed to take effective measures to combat inflation, the declining birth rate and the difficulty young people have finding jobs, which have all been factors in the lack of widespread public support.

Meanwhile, Yoon has refused to apologize over the issue of a viral video that showed his wife receiving a luxury handbag from an acquaintance and has reportedly ignored opposition from within ruling party over the appointment of the former defense minister, who was under investigation for alleged abuses of power, to an ambassadorial post to allow him to leave the country.

Yoon’s tendency to stubbornly stick to his own ideas has led to criticism for being “self-righteous,” and the ballots of swing voters mainly went to opposition parties. Yoon should carefully analyze the cause of the election defeat and apply the results of the analysis to his administration management from now on.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 13, 2024)