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Yoon Rushes to Improve Ties with Tokyo
Drifting away from China
By: Shim Jae Hoon
South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol is rushing to mend years of troubled relations with the country’s key neighbor Japan, but the road ahead to reconciliation is littered with detritus of history that won’t be easy to negotiate.
In a round of meetings with senior Japanese leaders including foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi visiting Seoul for his inauguration, Yoon affirmed his resolve to end years of diplomatic estrangement that happened under the watch of his predecessor Moon Jae-in’s leftwing-nationalist leadership. And yet, Yoon needs help from Moon’s parliamentary allies in seeking a breakthrough.
Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have exchanged letters committing themselves to restoring close ties in the face of growing security challenge from North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats. They are also under compulsion to achieve an entente as global tensions arise from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing geostrategic hegemony in the western Pacific. Yoon and Kishida have both pointed at these background factors in their letters.
But problems lie mostly in Seoul. One of them is the 2018 ruling by South Korea’s pro-Moon Supreme Court ordering Japan’s Nippon Steel to compensate four Korean men who had been drafted to work at its factory during World War Two. Under this ruling, the court ordered the seizure of Japanese corporate assets in Seoul to compensate workers, raising the possibility of the court or claimants selling them off to raise cash.
Tokyo considers that a Maginot line on diplomatic relations. It has vowed to take this case to the international court of justice if that occurred, as Seoul – under the 1965 diplomatic normalization treaty - had committed to waver all future claims stemming from 35 years of colonial rule in exchange for an economic aid package.
Yoon’s dilemma is how to assuage the long-lingering resentment that still runs deep at home, especially among left-wing, nationalist communities that brook no compromise even though the nation has benefitted from wise uses of Japan’s economic aids and investments. Part of the problem of alienation is connected also with a succession of Korean governments politically using colonial past as a valve for internal troubles at home.
Having campaigned on pledge to normalize ties with Tokyo, Yoon has the mandate to seek a breakthrough for security as well as economic reasons. North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats have become a global security concern. And yet, relations with Japan under the previous regime had so deteriorated that Seoul refused to share military intelligence on North Korea with Tokyo, prompting Japan to retaliate by taking South Korea out of export white list on key materials needed for manufacturing semiconductor chips.
It’s little wonder then that the impetus for a breakthrough in relations with Japan comes mainly from the business community, which President Yoon has strongly committed to help. Korea-Japan bilateral trade and investment, once a leading factor pushing Seoul’s phenomenal economic development, have dropped to a nadir. Trade volume, once on the top ranks, has declined over the years to fifth place. The US as the chief alliance partner in the region is dismayed over this negative trend developing between the world’s third largest and tenth biggest economies.
Japanese parliamentarians visiting Seoul have stressed that Kishida desires a quick reconciliation but on a firm footing of Seoul affirming the spirit and letter of the 1965 normalization treaty relinquishing all future claims beyond what had been settled. But accepting this key “condition” will be a challenge for Yoon, as it implies Seoul backtracking on a stand taken by its previous regime.
As a way out of this dilemma caused by the Supreme Court ruling, Yoon has proposed the two countries reaffirm the 1998 Kim-Obuchi Statement, in which former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung and Japanese premier Keizo Obuchi pledged to start a new era of amity, with Obuchi formally apologizing for Japan’s brutal colonial rule and Kim pledging to start new relations on the basis of amity. Yoon hopes to use this statement to make a fresh start, but will Japan go along with this glib, facile solution?
As for Yoon, he is in no position to bargain or drag his feet as he urgently needs Japan’s help in gaining membership in the US-led Quad Security Dialogue, and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework which Tokyo and Washington are pushing to counter China’s expansionist posture in the region. Yoon’s foreign minister-designate, Park Jin, is even eager for a role in the new Aukus (Australia, UK, US) security arrangement.
Seoul’s rapid shift to the right is economically motivated. South Korea’s high-tech giants such as Samsung and SK groups are keen to stay competitive and connected to global value chains as Japan and Taiwan cooperate on next generation semiconductor markets. Korea needs to stay with the trend as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea together claim as much as 80 percent of global markets in chips, keeping China at bay as they move to the next-generation CHIP4 development programs.
This east Asian trio that drifts away from China is considered a major source of tension as Beijing furiously tries to catch up. China, Seoul’s biggest trading partner so far, has consistently politicized trade relations, demanding that South Korea remove US missile bases. Beijing however does little to restrain North Korea on the issue of denuclearization. President Yoon, elected on a pledge to abandon Moon’s “assurances” to China that Korea will stop bringing more US high altitude interceptor missiles or joining an anti-China military alliance, has now declared a new policy line.
Concerned by these new policy directions, China has sent its elder statesman Wang Qishan to Yoon’s inauguration. Wang brought a gift that the previous president would have found it hard to refuse: an invitation from Xi Jinping to visit Beijing. Yoon’s response was as polite as it was firm: thank you but no thanks. It was now Xi’s turn to visit Seoul, not the other way round, Yoon is reported to have reminded his guest. It amounted to a signal that things were changing rapidly under Yoon.