Hope for a diplomatic reset . . .
A group of diplomatic advisors sent by South Korean president-elect Yoon Seok-yeol concluded a five-day visit to Tokyo with the goal of improving bilateral ties. Japan-South Korea relations have deteriorated in recent years after several historical disputes regarding ‘comfort women’ (women that worked in Japanese wartime brothels against their will) and forced labourers during the Japanese colonial era reached a boiling point. At a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on Tuesday, the South Korean delegation conveyed Yoon’s hope for a “future-oriented” approach to resolving disagreements. Kishida stressed the urgent need for strategic co-operation in light of ongoing regional challenges, such as growing Chinese assertiveness and North Korean provocations. While there were hopes of Kishida attending Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, no formal invitation has been extended.
South Korea central to regional security . . .
Yesterday, the White House announced that U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to South Korea and Japan in late May to reaffirm America’s commitment to its two treaty allies and a free and open Indo-Pacific. Yoon has clearly signalled that his administration would pursue a foreign policy more aligned with the U.S. and its allies, a significant shift from his predecessor Moon Jae-in’s approach of balancing between Washington and Beijing. However, the need to maintain China’s support in dealing with a belligerent North Korea may limit the extent to which Yoon can antagonize Beijing. So far, South Korea has not sought formal membership in the Quad, an arrangement seen as a counterweight to China’s regional influence.
Public opinion stands between rhetoric and policy . . .
Political will and security imperatives create favourable conditions to improve Japan-South Korea relations, but domestic politics are expected to pose a significant challenge for president-elect Yoon. Although his administration affirmed South Korea’s adherence to the 2015 ‘comfort women' agreement, which puts an official end to this historical dispute, other issues, such as the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling ordering Japanese firms to compensate victims of forced labour during the colonial era remain unresolved. Civil society groups worry that Yoon will prioritize bolstering relations with Japan over the sentiments of victims and their families. Elected with a historically narrow margin, Yoon will need to be especially mindful of public outcry and potential pushback from political rivals.
- The Asahi Shimbun: Kishida can break deadlock by attending Yoon’s inauguration
- Asia Times: Korea’s Yoon angling for a Japan reset
- Yonhap News: Yoon’s delegates, Japan’s leader agree on need to pursue ‘shared interests’