Yoon’s victory is a good thing for Tokyo-Seoul relations

Yoon Suk-yeol prevailed in South Korea’s presidential election Wednesday, eking out a minuscule margin of victory in a bitterly fought campaign.

The return of a conservative to the Blue House could transform South Korean foreign policy and offers a chance for a turnaround in Japan’s relations with its neighbor. It won’t be easy, however: Yoon is an inexperienced politician, leads a deeply divided country and the progressive party maintains its grip on the National Assembly.

The Japanese government should do all it can to be a good partner for South Korea and forge a productive and forward-looking relationship with Seoul. But it is up to South Korea to start that process and make it possible.

Yoon is a former prosecutor who made his reputation investigating and convicting former President Park Geun-hye, charges that lead to her impeachment and propelled Moon Jae-in to the presidency as her replacement. Yoon consolidated his credentials by investigating some of Moon’s closest aides, including Cabinet ministers. He became a conservative darling when he resigned and became a critic of the president.

Political inexperience did not keep him from winning the nomination of the main opposition People Power Party. Yoon promised to stop corruption, ever fertile ground in a country wracked by a deep and persistent sense of inequality and political favoritism.

He faced off against Lee Jae-myung, the former governor of Gyeonggi, South Korea’s largest province, who was the progressive Democratic Party candidate. (The Constitution restricts South Korean presidents to a single five-year term.) Yoon won 48.6% of the vote, while Lee collected just 47.8%, a gap of less than 1% — the closest presidential election in South Korean history, even though 77% of eligible voters cast ballots.

While the margin of victory was razor thin, Yoon’s win was expected. While neither candidate was especially popular and the campaign was marked by smears, the ballot was a referendum on the Moon record and voter dissatisfaction was high. South Koreans are fatigued by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, concerned and angered about rising inequality, shrinking job opportunities, astronomical housing prices and a series of scandals. A vote for Yoon was, for many, a protest vote.

In his victory speech, Yoon said he would work with opposition parties to overcome the divisions that blight South Korean politics. He promised to make national unity a priority. He could prove his sincerity by urging prosecutors, a notoriously independent and unruly force, to avoid going after his predecessor, which would be a break with recent practices. (His power to control prosecutors is limited, but he can make his preferences known.)

His domestic agenda is clear. Yoon must ensure that South Korea’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is equitably distributed and see that more of the populace feels as though its economic prospects are improving. He said that he will build 2.5 million housing units to ease that crunch and will make sure that 300,000 of them are available to young buyers. Like many conservatives, he said that he will loosen regulations on businesses, incentivize investment financing and promote labor flexibility.

The most drastic shift is likely to be foreign policy. A neophyte in this area, he has surrounded himself with longtime conservative advisers who are well known in Tokyo and Washington. The most basic shift will come in Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang, which will trigger a series of resulting changes.

The Moon administration, argued Yoon, made dialogue with North Korea “an end in itself.” This created tension with the Biden administration, which is far more skeptical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and because that policy pushed Moon closer to China — he hoped Beijing could pressure Kim to talk — despite an increasingly fraught U.S.-China relationship.

Yoon will prioritize denuclearization over inter-Korean relations, which will better align his administration with its ally in Washington. He also said that he seeks “strategic clarity,” or closer ties to the U.S. Yoon believes that strength is the prerequisite to serious negotiations, which portends more joint military drills with its ally as well as increasing South Korea’s military strength.

Those policies will also align Seoul more closely with Tokyo, which has been concerned about Moon’s readiness to accommodate Pyongyang. Yoon has said that he wants to build a “future-oriented” relationship with Japan, one modeled after that forged by former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Yoon said that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will be the second leader he meets, after U.S. President Joe Biden.

Kishida responded positively, reciprocating Yoon’s desire to put the bilateral relationship back on track. We too are heartened by Yoon’s rhetoric and hope that his administration will follow up.

Trust between the two countries is in short supply, however. The Japanese government will continue to insist that the 1965 normalization treaty set the terms for our relationship and will expect its counterpart in Seoul to honor its provisions. That means an end to calls for compensation in the forced labor lawsuits and settling the comfort women controversy.

Japan should be ready to discuss South Korea’s return to export control white lists. South Korea’s bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is another issue that could be a springboard to better relations. Resolving all these problems is unrealistic; managing them is not.

Most critically, Yoon will have to reject the siren song of identity politics and fight the urge to make Japan a scapegoat whenever political downturns make that convenient. He will also have to work to shape the public perception of Japan so that it is viewed as a partner.

The prospect of losing its advocate in the Blue House will infuriate North Korea and it will test the new president and his priorities. Pyongyang will try to drive a wedge between Yoon and his ally in Washington and his partner in Tokyo.

Neither Yoon, Biden nor Kishida should allow themselves to be provoked by Kim. Instead, they should consult and cooperate to forge the coalition that can successfully deter and contain Kim. That will provide a foundation for continuing cooperation and the strategic partnership between Tokyo and Seoul that Yoon and Kishida both say they want.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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