Yoon, with National Interest in Mind, Ready to Face Domestic Criticism

AP Photo / Ahn Young-joon
South Korean civic groups hold up red cards during a rally against the South Korean government’s announcement of a plan over the issue of compensation for requisitioned workers at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday.

SEOUL — South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to resolve the issue of former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula and restart mutual visits with Japan.

Yoon carried out his pledges at the risk of receiving criticism from the South Korean public because he believes that strengthening security, economic and other cooperation with Japan will directly serve his country’s national interest.

According to the Yonhap news agency, Yoon emphasized at a State Council meeting Tuesday that he had merely implemented his pledges.

A senior South Korean government official said to The Yomiuri Shimbun that Yoon had told his close aides that “Japan is a liberal democratic country like South Korea and if there are history issues [between the two countries], we should resolve them.”

With the North Korean threat growing, there is an urgent need to strengthen cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea.

Almost a year has passed since Yoon was elected president, and he is now clearly showing his stance, which the abovementioned official views as being “rational and pragmatic.”

At a ceremony to commemorate the March First Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule, Yoon called Japan a “partner” of South Korea. This marked a shift from the hard-line policy toward Japan of some of his predecessors’ administrations that had brought history issues to the fore.

“This is probably because Yoon is not a career politician, so he does not need to care about his own political base,” a source said.

According to an opinion poll conducted by South Korean polling firm Realmeter on Tuesday and Wednesday, only about 40% of all respondents supported the South Korean government’s plan to resolve the issue of former requisitioned workers. Support reached about 60% among conservatives while it stood at about 30% among centrists and about 20% among leftists.

While slightly less than 70% of all respondents said the Japan-South Korean relationship needed to be improved, there is a strong opposition within the country against a rapid improvement in the bilateral ties.

Since Yoon’s party does not have a majority in the National Assembly, he will face difficulties running national affairs until the end of his five-year term unless the party wins the general elections next spring. Before the election campaign gets fully underway, Yoon apparently wanted to move to resolve the issue, which is certain to trigger criticism from the public.