By Nakajima Kentaro, Washington bureau chief
In late September, senior officials of the South Korean ruling and opposition parties, who are preparing for the presidential election in March next year, visited Washington one after another. The reason for their visits was to explain the importance of the relationship with the U.S., the cornerstone of South Korea’s diplomacy, before the new administration takes office.
Chairman Song Yong-gil of the ruling and leftist Democratic Party of the Moon Jae-in administration, and Chairman Lee Jun-seok of the conservative opposition People Power Party, met with coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell in charge of the Asia policy of the U.S. Biden administration and others.
While the conservative opposition party naturally emphasized the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the U.S. side was more interested in the foreign policy of the leftist ruling party.
Lee Jae-myung, who was selected in October as the ruling party’s presidential candidate, has only political experience as a mayor and governor. Lee’s populist policies include a guaranteed income for all citizens. There remains concern that Lee may try to score points in diplomacy as well by taking extremely anti-Japan and pro-North Korea policy.
According to sources connected to the U.S. government, the ruling party delegation explained, “Lee is only interested in domestic policy, and since failure in diplomatic relations with the U.S. is politically unacceptable, he won’t do anything that might trouble the U.S.”
Leaders of the South Korean leftist camp, who are now at the center of South Korea’s politics, opposed the ROK’s military regime in the pro-democracy movement until the 1980s. They are basically anti-Japanese and anti-American. These leftists believe that after the founding of the Republic of Korea, pro-Japanese forces of the colonial era took control of the military government, which was backed by the U.S.
In 2008, leftist forces led a massive anti-U.S. demonstration involving more than 100,000 people against the conservative government’s decision to resume imports of U.S. beef. A former U.S. diplomat stationed in Seoul at the time recalled that “it was hard to believe that such an anti-U.S. demonstration could happen in a country that depends on the U.S. for its security.
Anti-Americanism is at the root of the leftist thought process, but once in power, leftists have also adopted a pragmatic policy toward the U.S. In 2003, the Roh Moo-hyun administration decided to deploy South Korean troops to Iraq at the request of the U.S. despite the opposition of the administration’s support base. President Roh later said, “For the sake of the alliance [with the U.S.], it was an inevitable choice.”
The current Moon administration, which is notably pro-North Korea, has not been able to unilaterally reconcile with North Korea due to its relationship with the U.S. “Even a leftist administration would put the brakes on diplomacy that could seriously damage relations with the U.S.,” said a source connected with the U.S. government. “I’m more worried about anti-Japanese sentiment.”
The reason why South Korean politicians become anti-Japanese is that they see an anti-Japan posture as a political issue allowing them to demonstrate a “firm stance” without provoking domestic opposition.
Lee Jae-myung, who is now a presidential candidate of the ruling party, has repeatedly said that Japan is a “hostile nation,” but the ruling party delegation that visited the U.S. did not touch on the relationship with Japan, according to sources.
As the U.S. attaches importance to cooperation with its allies in its full-fledged Asia-focused strategy, Washington is concerned about the deterioration of the Japan-South Korea relationship. Will the ROK’s leftist forces be able to put the brakes on their anti-Japanese sentiment? Not only Japan but also the U.S. is closely monitoring the situation.