Yoon rushes to improve ties with Tokyo

asiasentinel.com -- May 16
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. ...continue reading