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[Research Reports] How long will ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol administration's "hugging diplomacy" with Japan last?

Tetsuya Hakoda (Editorial Writer, Asahi Shimbun)
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Research Group on 'Korean Peninsula' FY2022-# 3

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The movement to restore relationships has begun

Political relations between Japan and the ROK have been undergoing major changes since Yoon Suk-yeol was inaugurated as the 20th president of the ROK on May 10, 2022. To be precise, these changes began two months before Yoon's inauguration. Yoon has consistently called for the improvement of Japan-ROK relations and, since he won a historically close campaign, the Japanese government's rigid policy toward the ROK has become more flexible. Rather than marking the dawn of a new era, however, the impression is of a restart toward normalization of the damaged intergovernmental relations between the two countries. Throughout the election campaign, Yoon's camp continued to insist on improving relations with Japan, a move that could lead to severe political backlash. This stance has not changed since he was elected and has even been strengthened since the new administration was inaugurated. What is the force that drives Yoon so much and is there a limit to it? As the Japanese government finds it difficult to fully respond to the Yoon administration's positive stance, mainly due to domestic politics, the extent to which Yoon's enthusiasm will continue will have a major impact on Japan-ROK relations henceforward.

Yoon, who had shown his willingness to improve relations with Japan even before the presidential election, spoke on the phone with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who had called to convey his congratulations on March 11 immediately after the election. With the North Korea issue in mind, Yoon said, "I would like to further strengthen cooperation among the ROK, Japan, and the United States." Yoon also brought up the history issues himself, stressing that it is important to "resolve pending issues rationally and in a way that is mutually beneficial."

This telephone conversation itself was realized after careful advance preparations by both parties. Towards the end of the presidential election, the ROK media predicted a landslide victory for Yoon, but the Japanese government, which had assumed that it would be a close contest, carefully considered the degree of congratulations that should be conveyed to Yoon if he won. Yoon's advisory group on diplomatic issues had expressed a desire for Japan's top leader (prime minister) to convey his congratulations directly, and the Japanese government began by responding to this request.

Although Yoon did not mention Japan in his inaugural address in May, that afternoon he met with Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, who had been dispatched as a special envoy by Prime Minister Kishida, and received a personal letter from the prime minister. Though some ROK media outlets expressed expectations for a visit to the ROK by Prime Minister Kishida at the time of the inauguration ceremony, the incumbent foreign minister's visit to the ROK was an achievement that seemingly fully met the hope of Yoon's side. Foreign Minister Hayashi's visit to the ROK was decided confidentially in late April.

Having won the presidential election, Yoon's camp first sent a policy delegation, equivalent to a special envoy, to the United States. The delegation to the United States promptly achieved unexpected results. It had been effectively confirmed that US President Biden would visit the ROK ahead of the Japan-US-Australia-India (Quad) summit to be held in Tokyo in late May. Yoon's aides were excited at the good news of the US president's visit to the ROK immediately after the administration took power.

On the other hand, the dispatch of a policy delegation to Japan was initially envisioned for after Yoon took office, partly due to consideration for China-ROK relations. However, the Japanese government strongly urged that the delegation come to Japan prior to the inauguration of the new administration and before the Golden Week holiday from the latter half of April which was approaching fast. Therefore, Yoon quickly decided to dispatch the delegation to Japan. Although there were no concrete discussions on resolving the issue of Korean forced labor during World War II, the biggest pending issue between the two countries, both sides felt a meaningful start, including Foreign Minister Hayashi's attendance at the inauguration ceremony.

President Yoon actively addressing the greatest concerns

After assuming office, Yoon continued to make positive comments about Japan, the most conspicuous of these coming in August when he delivered a speech on National Liberation Day commemorating the liberation from Japan's colonial rule (August 15), and shortly thereafter at an August 17 press conference with domestic and foreign correspondents.

ROK presidents have always mentioned Japan in one way or another in their speeches on National Liberation Day due to the nature of the holiday. Although such mention has not necessarily been negative, even positive messages about the importance of the future have frequently been preceded by references to the negative history of colonial rule. Yoon, however, was different. He talked highly of Japan, a neighboring country that had previously swallowed up his country's dignity and culture, by stating that "Japan, from whose political control we once strove to break, is now a neighbor with whom we must work together to face challenges that threaten the freedom of citizens around the world."

At a press conference two days later, Yoon took things a step further, stating regarding the issue of former civilian workers that he was "deeply considering ways to ensure that creditors (plaintiffs) receive compensation without conflicting with Japan's sovereignty concerns." He also expressed confidence about resolving the issue, stating, "I'm looking (at developments) positively".

The draft of the Liberation Day speech was obtained by the Japanese government in advance, so it was not a big surprise. However, his remarks at the press conference, especially his answer to questions from Japanese media reporters that were not prepared in advance, went so far that even members of the Yoon administration could not believe their ears. He clearly stated that he was seeking a solution that does not conflict with "Japan's concerns."

The Japanese government has continually insisted that the issue of former civilian workers had been fully resolved by the 1965 Japan-ROK agreement concerning the settlement of property issues/claims and economic cooperation and that protecting its legal position should be the top priority. Yoon's remarks were interpreted as expressing an intent to arrive at a solution that does not undermine the assertions of the Japanese side, and they gave a strong impression that progress is generally being made in the direction of resolving the biggest pending issue.

On the other hand, high-ranking officials inside the Yoon administration, especially those who interact with opposition party members on domestic issues, voiced their concerns. From mid-June, the Yoon administration began to face strong headwinds over high-ranking officials under suspicion and the promotion of officials from the prosecutor's office, the president's former organization, and the administration's approval rating began to decline. Yoon made his series of remarks on the issue of Japan at a time when various surveys showed that the government's approval rating was in the 20% range. There was a conspicuous reaction against the perplexingly bold stance taken on the sensitive issues between the ROK and Japan.

However, Yoon's "offensive" continued. The ROK government had been preparing for the first face-to-face summit between Japan and the ROK at the United Nations General Assembly in the autumn, and communications continued toward that end as soon as September came. After talks among senior security officials from Japan, the United States and the ROK were held in Hawaii earlier that month, National Security Office Director Kim Sung-han said that "we discussed the specific timing" of a Japan-ROK summit and hinted at the possibility of a summit meeting taking place at the United Nations General Assembly. Furthermore, on the 15th of that same month, another high-ranking Blue House official explained to reporters, "We have agreed to hold a meeting and are currently coordinating the time." On the other hand, the Japanese government hastily denied that anything had been decided specifically, which seemed strange.

In the end, the two leaders took advantage of their attendance at the United Nations General Assembly to meet and talk face-to-face for about 30 minutes. The Japanese government announced this meeting as a "talk" and emphasized that it was not a summit meeting, while the ROK government explained that it was a "summit talk", albeit an informal one. The difference in views on this apparently reflects the delicate domestic situations facing both the Japanese and ROK governments.

New government hastens to rectify anomalous relationships

Why does Yoon attach so much importance to relations with Japan while taking domestic risks? One of the reasons is undoubtedly the element of countermeasures against North Korea, which is stepping up rather than stopping its nuclear and missile development, because he believes that not only the United States and the ROK but also Japan, the United States, and the ROK need to cooperate on security matters in order to counter North Korea.

Quite a few members of the foreign/security policy group supporting Yoon are hard-liners vis-à-vis North Korea. They believe that it is necessary to put stronger pressure on North Korea than the former conservative governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye did to force them to suspend their nuclear and missile development. Close cooperation with Japan and the United States is essential in doing so. Yoon himself has made reference to the necessity of security cooperation among Japan, the United States and the ROK at every opportunity. Foreign Minister Park Jin, who visited the United States in June, went out of his way to say at a press conference after the US-ROK foreign ministers' meeting that he wanted to "normalize the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA)" between Japan and the ROK as soon as possible. It can be said that this clearly shows how much importance the Yoon administration attaches to security cooperation among the three countries.

At the same time, such a policy toward North Korea constitutes a rejection of the policy of the previous Moon Jae-in administration, which placed top priority on inter-Korean reconciliation. Right-wing forces have rallied behind the claim that the Moon administration has thoroughly attacked domestic conservatives under the banner of a campaign to "eradicate deep-rooted evils" that seeks to eliminate the evils that have accumulated in ROK politics and society, and these right-wing forces backed Yoon, who was the prosecutor general at that time. Although it was a close victory, there are quite a few people in the new administration who believe that it is necessary to retaliate now that they have seized power.

Since relations with Japan clearly deteriorated during the five years of the Moon administration, the improvement of Japan-ROK relations can strike a domestic audience as a positive outcome of the change in government. It seems that Yoon aimed to differentiate himself from the previous administration by sending out a conciliatory message on National Liberation Day.

However, some diplomatic officials in the Yoon administration have slightly different impressions. They point out that Yoon, who has no political background, may be simply trying to rectify anomalous relations with Japan rather than seeking personal or political gain.

Looking at Yoon's remarks so far, there have been many cases where he has repeatedly emphasized the importance of freedom and values, and then indicated the direction of the actions and choices that should be made. In his National Liberation Day speech, he said, "When we move toward the (ROK's and Japan's) future and the mission of our times based on universal values, we can properly resolve historical issues."

If Yoon prioritizes the restoration of relations with Japan and expects to see useful results after that, then it would be safe to assume that his convictions regarding diplomacy with Japan are quite firm. However, aside from Yoon's personal feelings, there are certainly forces around the president striving to put a damper on his efforts out of concern for the position in which his administration is placed. At the same time, dissatisfaction with the Japanese government is emerging from this situation.

Japan and the ROK facing headwinds in domestic affairs

Regarding the process leading up to the dialogue between the two leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in particular, there was strong opposition from those involved in the Yoon administration and members of the ruling party who support the administration. Japanese media reported that Kishida reluctantly accepted Yoon's request for a meeting, citing a Japanese government official. In response, a South Korean official involved in Japan policy countered that the reports surrounding the process were not true and criticized the Japanese government's arrogant attitude as potentially harmful to bilateral relations.

Nonetheless, under the Kishida and Yoon administrations, the gap on the most pressing issue of former civilian workers has undoubtedly narrowed as never before. As Yoon himself said at a press conference, if payment of compensation by the defendant companies can be avoided, a concern of utmost priority to the Japanese government, the point of contention will be largely resolved.

It was during such progress that former prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead in Japan. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the House of Councilors election immediately thereafter, but the Kishida administration's footing was greatly compromised due to collusion between the former Unification Church and the LDP that was highlighted by Abe's death and the unpopularity of certain personnel choices. The atmosphere is becoming unsuitable for making progress on historical issues with the ROK as this could irritate right-wingers close to Abe. It would be reasonable to assume that such domestic politics had a major impact on the Japanese government's public pronouncements regarding the Japan-ROK summit "talks" at the United Nations General Assembly.

Even after the meeting at the United Nations General Assembly, there has been no change in Yoon's attitude toward Japan. However, if rectification of the anomalous bilateral relations stagnates and does not move forward, due mainly to circumstances on the Japanese side, the outcome will be very uncertain. The former Lee Myung-bak administration, which came to power with the goal of improving relations with Japan, perceived that the Japanese side continued to refuse to shake the ROK's extended hand, leading ultimately to that president visiting Takeshima.

Foreign affairs are an extension of domestic affairs, but it is often the case that missed opportunities lead to missed achievements. Political leaders on both sides must bear in mind that the severely chilled Japan-ROK relationship cannot be restored without a series of dialogues, whether it be talks or summit meetings, and major political decisions.

(This is an English translation of a Japanese paper originally published on October 19, 2022)