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Japan-ROK relationship under “Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol”

By Nikkei Seoul bureau chief Onchi Yosuke


President Yoon Suk-yeol and President Joe Biden

 A wooden plaque on the desk of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol reads “The buck stops here.” Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman liked the phrase. President Joe Biden presented the plaque to President Yoon during his visit to South Korea in May.


A month and a half have passed since Yoon took office in May. He is apparently conscious of the strong leadership the plaque implies. A good example of his leadership is the relocation of the Blue House [presidential palace] to the Ministry of National Defense building in just two months, despite opposition. The ministry was in turmoil, but the deadline was hurriedly met as he requested.


In determining members of his administration, Yoon appointed many prosecutors and bureaucrats whom he knows well, to the extent that opposition parties and the media ironically call the administration a “prosecution republic.” By placing people whom Yoon can trust in key positions, the president is apparently aiming to spread his influence to each organization.


Some believe that Yoon’s strong top-down governing style was “cultivated in the special investigation division of South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, where Yoon spent many years. The special investigation division is willing to sometimes use heavy-handed investigative methods to prosecute a case based on suspicions that have surfaced. When he was prosecutor general, Yoon led the investigation of allegations against then-Moon Jae-in administration, which had taken steps to reform the Supreme Prosecutors Office and confronted the prosecution head-on.


Yoon assures that the “South Korea-Japan relationship will work out well.” His view of Japan is related to his background as a prosecutor in the special investigation division, based on the history of exchange between the two countries’ prosecutions.


Yoon invited a prosecutor named Koike Chuta from Japan to the inauguration ceremony held on May 10. Koike is a public prosecutor assigned to the Aomori District Public Prosecutors Office. While assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul as a first secretary, Koike associated with Yoon, and two often drank shochu together.


According to a former Korean prosecutor, “The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has served as a model for the special Investigation division [of South Korea].” The Lockheed bribery scandal and the Recruit scandal investigated by the special investigation squad inspired South Korea’s prosecutors.


Another former South Korean prosecutor assigned to the special investigation division said, “The view of Japan within the South Korea’s Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and Korean society in general is somewhat different. According to the prosecutor, if a South Korean prosecutor is very knowledgeable about Japan, it does not necessarily give a negative impression of him or her [within the prosecutors’ office].


Despite his prosecutorial background, Yoon has a good reputation for having a deep understanding of and an interest in diplomacy and security. Seeing that Yoon is natural and can open up to anyone, a senior Japanese government official who attended a meeting with foreign leaders expressed hope that President Yoon’s sociable and cheerful personality will contribute greatly to diplomacy with neighboring countries.


Meanwhile, the Japan-South Korea relationship has become complicated and deteriorated to where it cannot be remedied only by President Yoon’s will and his top-down approach. South Korea needs a new law to resolve the issues of the former Korean requisitioned workers and comfort women for which a South Korean court held Japan responsible and ordered compensation.


South Korea’s ruling party won a landslide victory in the June local elections, but innovative opposition parties will continue to hold a majority of seats in the National Assembly for the next two years. The divided National Assembly makes it difficult for the government to get legislation passed as desired. The ROK hopes, therefore, to create an atmosphere conducive to improving relations by resuming exchanges in the private sector first.


Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President Yoon will attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Spain later this month. The two countries have different views about holding a summit meeting. The ROK is eager to hold a summit meeting, but Japan, which is preparing for the upcoming Upper House election, is cautious because resolution of the pending bilateral issues is nowhere in sight. 


Professor Okuzono Hideki of the University of Shizuoka points out, “In order to restore the broken trust, it is important for leaders to meet in person to demonstrate their willingness to improve the situation.” Even if an answer to the difficult question is not immediately available, the two leaders might as well take advantage of the opportunity for their first face-to-face meeting so as not to squander the momentum to improve bilateral relations.

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