By Uchihata Tsugumasa
Yoon Suk-yeol, who emphasizes South Korea’s relationships with Japan and the U.S., has taken office as the new president of South Korea and launched his government. It is the first conservative government in the ROK in five years. President Yoon intends to abandon the conciliatory approach to North Korea and the pro-China policy line pursued by the left-of-center government led by President Moon Jae-in. Yoon has indicated a willingness to mend his country’s ties with Japan. But will he really be able to do so as president and mend the bilateral ties? Japanese newspapers expressed both hope and apprehension about the new government in the neighboring country.
The Asahi Shimbun welcomed and expressed expectations for the launch of the new government. It wrote, “We hope the change of government will bring a fresh breeze of progress to his country as well as overseas.” The paper went on to say: “On the same day, the executive office of the president moved out of the iconic Blue House, opening this traditional symbol of political power to the public. Yoon reiterated the importance of freedom and democracy in his inaugural address.”
The Mainichi Shimbun opined: “Along with the launch of the Kishida administration last fall, both countries now have a new order in charge. Following the recent years of “the worst Tokyo-Seoul ties since the normalization of diplomatic relations,” this is a chance to work for a dramatic rapprochement.” The paper went on to say, “There is real meaning in joining hands on humanitarian aid, sanctions against Russia, and other facets of the crisis.”
But severe situations at home and abroad await the Yoon government. North Korea, which continues to develop nuclear weapons and missiles, has conducted repeated ballistic missile launches recently and China, which is stepping up its maritime expansion, is magnifying its menacing behavior with the clear intention to annex Taiwan. The invasion of Ukraine has once again shown that Russia is an overwhelming threat. All newspapers recognized the extremely severe security environment surrounding East Asia.
The Sankei Shimbun stated: “Now more than ever Japan, South Korea and the United States need to cooperate for the sake of peace and stability in East Asia. Seeing as how under Moon Jae-in, Yoon’s predecessor, the trilateral arrangement did not function as it should, strengthening relations among the three countries will be a pressing diplomatic issue for the Yoon administration.” It also stated that to achieve these goals, “It is indispensable to mend the frayed Japan-ROK relationship” and requested Yoon to clearly present policies for improving relations.
The Yomiuri Shimbun’s editorial focused on security cooperation between Japan, the U.S., and South Korea, and said, “Yoon’s basic policy of enhancing deterrence through strengthening cooperation with Japan and the United States can be evaluated as a realistic policy.” The paper also touched on Yoon’s proposal to establish a preemptive strike capability and deploy the additional missile defense systems by the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea to deter North Korea. “South Korea should consider again strengthening joint military exercises with the United States, which have been scaled down under the previous South Korean administration,” the paper said.
For Yoon, a former public prosecutor and political novice, the national assembly is a redoubtable foe as it is dominated by the leftist opposition Democratic Party of Korea. Therefore, it will not be easy to mend his country’s ties with Japan. Yoon sent a delegation comprising his aides and experts to Japan ahead of his inauguration. And Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa attended Yoon’s inauguration ceremony. After the ceremony, Yoon met with Hayashi and said he is “eager to cooperate with Japan” in improving the sourced ties. Asahi, Mainichi, and the Tokyo Shimbun suggested a Japan-ROK summit at an early date. Mainichi underscored, “Yoon and Kishida should create an opportunity to meet in person soon, and set the stage for Japan and South Korea to better ties.”
Even if a summit is held, what matters is what will be achieved after the summit, namely, how the two countries will solve pending issues including the former comfort women and requisitioned workers. Yomiuri insisted, “If there is a positive move toward a solution in South Korea, it is desirable that Japan will respond flexibly and engage in constructive dialogue.” And the Nikkei urged, “We also call on the Kishida government to respond to the goodwill of the Yoon administration with constructive dialogue.”
Sankei has consistently taken the stance that there is no room for Japan to compromise, because the two countries reached a “final and irreversible solution” to the comfort women issue under the bilateral agreement signed in 2015 and the compensation issue regarding the former requisitioned workers, including compensation for individuals, had been resolved by the agreement concluded when the two countries normalized their diplomatic relations in 1965. Sankei insisted: “It needs to be kept in mind that South Korea bears sole responsibility for the deterioration in Japan-South Korea relations. It is up to Seoul to adhere to the principle that “promises between nations must be kept”—something that should be obvious.”
For the time being, we want to closely monitor what kinds of messages the new South Korean government will convey regarding trilateral relations with Japan and the U.S. and bilateral relations with Japan during the upcoming visit to South Korea and Japan by U.S. President Joe Biden.