Will Yoon’s Risky Wager On Japan Pay Off? – Analysis


By Eun A Jo

There are signs of a thawing in the frosty ties between South Korea and Japan. It began with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s controversial attempt to salvage the relationship, dropping demands for an apology and compensation from Japan over wartime forced labour. Though Japan’s response has been more tepid and sceptical, the countries’ leaders have made important strides, including meeting for a summit for the first time in 12 years.

The truce was welcome, with the United States hailing the ‘groundbreaking’ news and claiming that it would forge a future that is ‘safer, more secure and more prosperous’. The rapprochement would usher in a new era of cooperation, against North Korean nuclear provocations and Chinese coercive diplomacy, and in support of supply chain, global health and climate change resilience.

But this is not the first time that the two countries shelved ‘history problems’ to prioritise cooperation. Since the normalisation of their relations in 1965, South Korea and Japan have sought to build a ‘future-oriented relationship’ — one that prioritised shared values and interests today over grievances of the past. Yet such efforts, including the 2015 comfort women deal, in which Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was personally involved, failed in the face of continued historical revisionism in Japan and festering anti-Japanese sentiments in South Korea.

The rapprochement resembles prior deals in a few unwelcome ways. It represents another surprise pact that lacks procedural legitimacy. Yoon’s administration had attempted to engage victims through a joint public–private council on the forced labour issue. But the effort proved hollow when it was discovered that Yoon was also pressuring the courtsto overturn its ruling against Japanese companies, which were complicit in war crimes. Calling it an ‘act of sabotage’, victim support groups walked away from the council.

It is unsurprising, then, that Yoon’s program has few advocates at home. Around 60 per cent of South Koreans oppose his proposal for compensating the victims through a public foundation. Given Yoon’s dwindling domestic approval ratings — hovering just above 30 per cent — the deal is risky. Anti-government protesters have flooded the streets to condemn Yoon’s ‘humiliating diplomacy’. Vocal segments of the victims rejected the plan and sued again to collect damages from Japanese companies.

Equally pernicious is the political opportunity this presents to the country’s besieged progressives. The deal was announced shortly after Yoon approved the motion to arrest Lee Jae-myung, former presidential candidate and leader of the main opposition party. Yoon’s progressive critics will mobilise around a familiar narrative of conservative collusion with Japan to recover any lost legitimacy over the recent string of corruption scandals.

The rapprochement also comes on the heels of mounting insecurities about, and animosity toward, China. Speculations of China’s potential invasion of Taiwan, amid deepening conflict with the United States, have reinforced the need for the two US allies to mend fences. Anti-Chinese sentiments in South Korea have also hit a historic high — at 81 per cent — marking a sharp turn in public opinion since 2015 when only 37 per cent of South Koreans held unfavourable views of China. These developments provide Yoon’s call for pragmatism some measure of credence and even resonance.

But whether such developments can sustain the latest entente is an open question, and there are at least two reasons for scepticism. The first is the politicisation of reconciliation with Japan. Domestic buy-in for Yoon’s initiative remains narrowly limited to the old conservatives and he has done little to broaden its appeal.

During a televised speech, Yoon criticised the ‘forces in our society that are trying to make political gains by advocating exclusionary nationalism and spreading anti-Japanese sentiments’. This not only lacks resonance — given the long history of pro-Japan collaboration and collusion in the country — but also makes certain that his legacy on Japan will face scrutiny when progressives take charge again.

The second reason is Japan’s lukewarm response. So far, Yoon has only made unilateral overtures, from restoring the trilateral military agreement to Japan’s preferential trading status. Aside from promises to resume talks, Kishida has yet to deliver any concessions in kind. Given the increasingly nationalist base of his party and his own lack of political capital, Kishida may find himself constrained in fully reciprocating Yoon’s gestures of good will. And anything short of a public apology may be simply not enough for the South Korean public.

Already, signs of unravelling are afoot. Barely weeks after the much-heralded summit, Japan’s education ministry approved new elementary school history textbooks, which whitewashed Japanese colonial and wartime crimes and intensified its sovereignty claim on Dokdo — a set of contested islets also known as Takeshima. Japan’s top spokesperson Hirokazu Matsuno rebuffed Seoul’s protest as ‘unacceptable based on [Japan’s] consistent stance’.

All this bodes ill for the ‘new era’ of South Korea–Japan relations. With legislative elections just months away in both South Korea and Japan, leaders will have incompatible demands — for Yoon, to attain as many Japanese concessions as possible, and for Kishida, to withhold them. But without popular support for reconciliation in South Korea and tamed historical revisionism in Japan, any deal on ‘history issues’ will face a familiar fate.

About the author: Eun A Jo is PhD Candidate in the Government Department at Cornell University and a Predoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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