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Domestic politics presents major stumbling block to Korea-Japan relations

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In Korea, Yoon's falling approval rating, opposition-led Assembly are obstacles; in Japan, anti-Korea sentiment, Abe's death complicate bilateral ties

By Kang Hyun-kyung

In Korea-Japan relations, it is commonly said among Korean experts that the ball is in Japan's court. In other words, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida holds the key, particularly following his party's big win in the Upper House elections earlier this month. Thus, it's important how he will respond to President Yoon Suk-yeol's repeated calls to sit down for a summit to discuss ways to repair bilateral relations between the two countries.

However, some experts disagree with this assessment. They claim that, in fact, the ball is in Korea's court, not Japan's. They say that President Yoon's falling approval rating and the National Assembly being dominated by the main opposition party are some of the stumbling blocks to improving Korea-Japan relations.

"As you know, the biggest obstacle that prevents the restoration of Korea-Japan relations is the wartime forced labor issue, as it is just a matter of time until South Korea's Supreme Court upholds the lower court's ruling on the Japanese companies to sell off their assets seized in Korea to compensate the victims or their families," Shin Kak-soo, a former vice foreign minister who later served as Korean ambassador to Japan between 2011 and 2013, told The Korea Times. "If that course of action is not reversed, it is hardly likely for the leaders of the two countries to agree on a summit."

Changing the course of action in Korea regarding the wartime forced labor issue is not something the executive branch of government can do. "But the legislative branch can, and lawmakers can draw up measures to alter the top court's possible order," Shin said.

Since the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling that ordered Japanese company Nippon Steel to compensate the surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor, the victims and their families requested that the district court seize the Japanese companies' assets in Korea, which was approved. Another district court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to sell off their assets in Korea to compensate the forced labor victims. The Japanese companies, claiming that all wartime-related issues were resolved in the 1965 treaty that normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries, appealed to the higher court. Korea's Supreme Court has yet to rule on the cases.

Those who are familiar with the case say the ruling may come as early as August. The Supreme Court is highly likely to uphold the lower court's rulings, as overturning the cases would amount to self-negation.

As Shin said, there is still a way to alter the court's forthcoming ruling, and the National Assembly holds the key.

But the Assembly is currently dominated by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which is unlikely to cooperate with President Yoon and his ruling People Power Party to pass any possible legislation aimed at restoring Korea-Japan relations.

Shin said that President Yoon's falling approval rating is another stumbling block to the restoration of Korea-Japan relations. "An issue like this is not something that President Yoon can push through without the backing of public opinion," he said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, U.S. President Joe Biden, center, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishia, right, sit for a trilateral summit held on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29. Yonhap
President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, U.S. President Joe Biden, center, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishia, right, sit for a trilateral summit held on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, June 29. Yonhap

Despite the challenges, Christopher Johnstone, senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., presented an optimistic view of Korea-Japan relations.

"Resolution of historical issues is politically sensitive and difficult for both, but there is a large practical agenda to pursue and an urgency to pursue it ― cooperation on North Korea, defense cooperation, work on economic issues such as semiconductors and supply chain resilience," he said. "I think they can and will move forward with this agenda, while working on the historical issues."

Since taking office on May 10, President Yoon has been working to restore Korea-Japan relations, which hit their lowest point in recent years during the previous Moon Jae-in government. President Yoon courted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during their attendance at the NATO Summit in late June to sit down for bilateral talks. Last week, Foreign Minister Park Jin returned to Seoul after wrapping up his trip to Japan to test the waters for a summit in his meetings with key Japanese officials.

Impact of Abe's death

Domestic politics in Japan have also emerged as a fresh impediment to diplomatic relations.

The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8 has complicated bilateral relations further. Abe, the country's longest-serving but divisive former leader, was gunned down by a suspect who held a grudge toward the Unification Church, a religious movement that began in Korea in the 1950s, after his mother's "huge donation" to the church bankrupted his family. According to the Unification Church, its members in Japan have received death threats and been exposed to hate crimes following Abe's death.

Yuji Hosaka, a professor of liberal arts at Sejong University in Seoul who is a naturalized Korean citizen, said that there has been more room for improvement of Korea-Japan relations since the passing of Abe.

Inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan, he said, Abe himself was the leader of the biggest faction. "Following his death, there's power struggle going on among Abe faction. Six people are competing to become the leader of the faction but none of them are as influential as Abe. So, the faction said it won't select a successor to Abe," Hosaka said, predicting that it will be inevitable for the Abe faction to be divided and weakened.

"What's happening within the LDP is positive for Prime Minister Kishida and his political mentor, Taro Aso, who is vice president of the party, because Kishida will be more empowered to push for his own agenda," he said.

Contrary to Korean media reports, Hosaka said, Kishida won't prioritize the constitutional amendment to allow Japan to have a military and end its pacifist Constitution.

"Prime Minister Kishida himself is a moderate, and so is his political mentor, Aso. The constitutional reform is not their priority. Kishida considers Japan's public debt a more significant issue that he should focus on, so he will. With the backing of the LDP, he will seek to raise consumption tax from the current 10 percent to 12 percent," he said.

A mourner offers flowers next to a picture of late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot while campaigning for a parliamentary election, on the day to mark a week after his assassination at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters, in Tokyo, Japan July 15. Reuters-Yonhap
A mourner offers flowers next to a picture of late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot while campaigning for a parliamentary election, on the day to mark a week after his assassination at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters, in Tokyo, Japan July 15. Reuters-Yonhap

When asked about the probability of a Korea-Japan summit being held within this year, Hosaka answered positively, saying any tangible outcomes in Korea-Japan bilateral relations will come after Sept. 27, the date when Japan is scheduled to hold a state funeral for Abe. "A state funeral for the former prime minister is rare and controversial as some are opposing, but Kishida decided on that because he still needs support from Abe's supporters," he said.

Johnstone said the two countries will seek joint gains eventually through cooperation, rather than maintaining sour relations.

"There has been positive movement in Korea-Japan relations since President Yoon came into office, and I don't think Prime Minister Abe's assassination will change the trajectory," he said. "Both Tokyo and Seoul recognize that it is in their interest to have stronger ties with each other, and together with the United States."

Hosaka, however, said that there is anti-Korea sentiment among the Japanese public, noting that if it is not resolved properly, it could make it difficult for the Japanese leader to push for measures to mend ties with Korea.

"Moderates gaining power in Japan is a good thing for Korea. But this shouldn't be interpreted as something that can guarantee the restoration of Korea-Japan relations automatically, because there's still anti-Korea sentiment in Japan and some Japanese still harbor doubts toward Korea, with the belief that Koreans are not trustworthy," he said. "The Korean government should come up with measures to make Korea look like a reliable country to Japanese people," he said.



Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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