South Korean President’s Diplomacy Yields Gains, Domestic Results Lackluster

Pool photo / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, center, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, are seen in Seoul on Sunday.

SEOUL — The improvement of relations with Japan as well as the strengthening of trilateral cooperation with the United States have been a long-cherished path advocated by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol since even before he took the post in May last year.

“It took 12 years to resume reciprocal visits, but it didn’t take two months for the two of us to visit each other,” Yoon said in Seoul on Sunday, referring to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s arrival that day for a summit and his visit to Japan in March.

Yoon’s administration has broken from the previous administration’s foreign policy strategy that tended to favor reconciliation with North Korea. Instead, his administration advocates becoming a “global pivotal state” that makes contributions in the international community commensurate with its economic power.

With China among the nations in mind, South Korea’s version of an Indo-Pacific strategy released last December clearly states its opposition to “unilateral change of status quo by force.”

Sunday’s summit with Kishida can be seen as an achievement of Yoon’s proactive efforts to improve bilateral relations.

“The two leaders were able to confirm cooperation in a wide range of fields, including security cooperation, economic security and the expansion of people-to-people exchanges,” an official of the South Korean presidential office said after the summit.

Diplomacy with Japan began to make progress on March 6 when the Yoon administration announced a solution to the lawsuits related to former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.

After the Kishida-Yoon summit in Tokyo on March 16, South Korea put Japan back on its so-called white list of countries that receive preferential treatment through simplified export procedures, reflecting how keen Yoon’s government was on the swift improvement in relations. It had been four years since Japan was on the list.

South Korea will attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima later this month as an invited country. Combined with the recent diplomatic developments, Yoon aims to link them as the achievements of his administration.

Domestically, however, it is difficult to say that his diplomacy is contributing to growing support for his administration. According to a Gallup Korea poll released Friday, Yoon’s approval rating rose to 33%, up 3 percentage points from the previous week, well behind the 57% disapproval rating.

How much understanding Yoon will gain among the people of South Korea regarding his moves to improve relations with Japan will be the next challenge.