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South Korea’s Yoon kick-starts diplomacy for reboot with Japan

YOSUKE ONCHI, Nikkei staff writer


SEOUL — South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is preparing to kick diplomacy with Japan into high gear with a new ambassador and a planned trip by his top diplomat after being buoyed by a landslide victory in local elections last week.


South Korea’s regional elections on June 1 served as the first major test of public support for the new administration, which took control roughly a month ago. Yoon’s People’s Power Party won 12 out of 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races that day. It also wrested a majority in local assemblies for Seoul, Busan and Incheon.


When asked about the election results on Friday, Yoon said it was “not the time to discuss political victories.” The conservative ruling party remains a minority in the National Assembly, putting the Yoon administration in a precarious position.


Still, the blow to the progressive opposition, which traditionally has taken a tough line on Japan, is a boon for Yoon’s foreign policy goals.


Yoon met with U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21 in Seoul shortly after taking office, where they reaffirmed the importance of the alliance between Washington and Seoul. He considers thawing ties with Japan as his next diplomatic priority.


Foreign Minister Park Jin is making final preparations to visit Japan late this month. Yoon is looking to attend the NATO summit in Spain starting June 29, raising the possibility of a meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida there should he also attend.


High-ranking officials from the U.S., South Korea and Japan have been in talks since May.


“The mood is no longer as stiff as it was under the Moon administration, and we’re feeling more comfortable in our conversations,” a diplomatic source said. Tensions between Japan and South Korea had grown during the tenure of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in.


Yoon on Tuesday announced the appointment of Yun Duk-min, a former head of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, as South Korea’s next ambassador to Japan. Yun had contributed to Yoon’s foreign policy platform during the presidential race. He has extensive connections to Japanese leaders, which could help bridge the rift.


Yoon is promoting greater travel and private-sector exchanges to warm ties before tackling controversial, time-consuming topics, such historical issues.


Flights between Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Seoul are to resume by the end of the month, following a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yoon looks to reinstate visa exemptions as early as possible.


At home, Yoon considers the economy his biggest concern and has pledged every effort to ensure stability. South Korea’s consumer price index rose 5.4% in May from a year earlier, stoking fears of stagflation. The president is under pressure to tackle regulatory reform and other measures to boost the economy.


Despite headwinds at the national level, greater control over regional politics means Yoon can start rolling out his domestic agenda on a local level.


Oh Se-hoon, a member of Yoon’s The People Power Party, was reelected mayor of Seoul on June 1. The ruling party also won 68% of seats in the city assembly, which previously was controlled by the opposition, paving the way for Oh to finally start redevelopment projects and other measures to increase the housing supply and curb soaring property prices in the capital.

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