South Korea’s presidential election is just four months away. The progressive ruling Democratic Party has selected former Gyeonggi Province Gov. Lee Jae-myung as its candidate, while the largest opposition force, the conservative People Power Party, has tapped former Prosecutor Gen. Yoon Seok-youl.
With the political season in full swing, President Moon Jae-in should use the remainder of his time in office to ensure the next administration can pursue constructive diplomacy with Japan.
On the most pressing issue of wartime labor lawsuits, assets seized from Japanese companies as compensation are to be liquidated imminently. These assets include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ patent and trademark rights, which a South Korean district court ordered be sold. Once the liquidation process is underway and the rights are passed to a third party, there is no turning back.
Separating politics and the economy in the Japan-South Korea relationship has never been easy. Making it even more difficult is fallout from an ongoing South Korean boycott of Japanese products in response to Tokyo tightening export controls. The spat has disrupted the division of labor between the neighboring countries, especially in manufacturing. The Japan-Korea Economic Association, which held an online conference in Tokyo and Seoul on Nov. 2, issued a statement expressing its hope for improved political and diplomatic relations.
Opinion polls show that the publics in both countries remain cool toward one another — a fact that should worry political leaders on each side. The Japanese government has begun easing entry restrictions that were imposed after the coronavirus breakout, but will that spark a return of the vibrant bilateral personal exchanges seen in 2018, when there were over 10 million round-trip travelers between the two countries?
Unfortunately, political leaders in both Japan and South Korea have shown little willingness to normalize relations. Three years have passed since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled on the wartime labor issue, and the country’s civil code has halted additional lawsuits. The government in Seoul should use this as an opportunity to take the initiative in breaking the deadlock.
Six months remain until the next administration takes office. Moon should use this time to listen to the many voices in South Korea calling for restored bilateral relations and make political decisions based on a broad perspective.
In the presidential election, the opposition candidate is calling for a package approach to resolving the issues between Japan and South Korea. This will hopefully spur debate on the ideal relationship between the neighboring countries, rather than allow the election to serve as a contest to see who can criticize Japan the most.
Leaving the relationship in the worst possible state will inevitably have a negative impact on East Asia’s increasingly tense security environment. It goes without saying that the Japanese government also needs to make strategic diplomatic efforts to improve ties.