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Yoon era stokes hope in Japan for better South Korea relations

  • May 11, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 9:10 a.m.
  • English Press

By HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei senior staff writer


TOKYO — With new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol pursuing greater cooperation with the U.S. and Japan, the Japanese government is optimistic for an improvement in bilateral ties considered to be in their worst stretch since Tokyo and Seoul normalized relations in 1965.


Yoon was sworn in on Tuesday, becoming South Korea’s first conservative president in five years. While Yoon sees deeper trilateral cooperation as key to responding to the growing North Korean threat, political headwinds at home could prevent him from taking major steps to dispel the distrust built up between Seoul and Tokyo over the years.


Japan hopes Yoon will have a positive effect. When Yoon sent a delegation to Japan prior to taking office, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with the group in recognition of the gesture to repair relations. Bilateral ties have been on the decline since then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2012 visited the islands controlled by Seoul as the Dokdo and claimed by Japan as the Takeshima.


Overcoming years’ worth of distrust will be no easy task. Japan continues to oppose the sale of seized Japanese corporate assets as compensation to South Koreans forced to work for those companies during World War II. It urges South Korea to stick to a 2015 agreement that was supposed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue of wartime “comfort women.”


Relations only deteriorated under Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who at one point said South Korea would not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement intelligence sharing pact with Japan. Although he later suspended the termination, exchanges on defense remain at a standstill.


Yoon’s inauguration speech steered clear of South Korea’s relations with Japan or the U.S. alliance. He instead focused heavily on the importance of liberty, democracy and the market economy, stressing values Seoul shares with Tokyo and Washington.


Domestic challenges could prevent Yoon from taking action. He won the election by a razor-thin margin, underscoring a weak political base. His approval rating is relatively low for a newly elected president, and the opposition Democratic Party controls the majority of the National Assembly as well.


South Korea’s conservatives see national security as a top priority while progressives want more engagement with Pyongyang, and the two sides struggle to see eye to eye on North Korea or China.


Japan faces an upper house election in July, and negotiations on disputes between Tokyo and Seoul are not expected to pick up until afterward.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook the international order. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly exhibited hegemonic tendencies while North Korea makes progress in developing its nuclear and missile programs. Yoon and Kishida may have no choice but to find common ground in light of each of their national interests.

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