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Yoon, Kishida find their hands tied

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By Kang Hyun-kyung

President Yoon Suk-yeol stressed again that he would keep pushing to get South Korea's strained relations with Japan back on the right track.

"South Korea-Japan relations are not something you can improve dramatically with a single effort," he said on Monday while answering questions from journalists on his way to the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul. "Bilateral ties receded a lot during the past (Moon Jae-in) administration. To normalize it from the current sour relations, we need to keep watching how Koreans and Japanese are reacting and make efforts accordingly."

Yoon touted the possible economic benefits for the two countries in case bilateral ties are improved. "South Korean and Japanese businesspeople are among the ones wishing for the improvement of bilateral ties. Once South Korea-Japan relations are getting back on the right track, companies of the two countries will invest in each other's nations and, as a result, job creation and economic growth will follow," he said, noting that he will push harder to make Seoul-Tokyo relations move forward against all odds.

Since his inauguration on May 10, President Yoon has been displaying his willingness to restore South Korea-Japan relations, which hit their lowest point in 2019 during the Moon administration, when the South Korean Supreme Court ruled for Japanese companies to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor.

Despite Yoon's repeated messages offering to mend ties with Japan, there have been few signs of progress. Yoon's 30-minute meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last week in New York, on the sidelines of their U.N. speeches, is a snapshot of where the two nations' relations are. The two sides continued to send contradictory messages about the Yoon-Kishida meeting until it was actually held.

Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus, says that systematic challenges standing in the way of Seoul-Tokyo relations will make it hard to get things back on the right track.

Among others, Kingston said, Japanese politicians' perceptions of Yoon have been shifting from positive to negative.

"After Moon, some of the conservative media in Japan think Yoon is a welcome change but he has become so weakened by a series of gaffes and poor judgment that hardly anyone thinks he can resolve outstanding bilateral issues," he told The Korea Times.

Kingston said Japanese politicians have begun to grow suspicious of Yoon as they see Lee Myung-bak, South Korea's former president, in Yoon.

"He is compared to another conservative Lee Myung-bak, who is remembered here for his visit to Takeshima/Dokdo and for demanding the emperor apologize. He came into office as the most pro-Japanese leader since Park Chung-hee but left in disgrace and is a reminder that across the political spectrum in Korea, Japan will find it tough going," he said.

President Yoon Suk-yeol heads to the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, Monday. Yonhap
President Yoon Suk-yeol heads to the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, Monday. Yonhap


Hardliners gaining the upper hand within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is another reason for Kingston's skepticism about the improvement of Seoul-Tokyo ties in the near future.

"No powerful members of the ruling LDP are inclined to make concessions to South Korea on history or territory. They feel that the goalposts are always moved and that Korean politicians play the history card to gain domestic support," he said.

In Korea, partisan politics also remain a hurdle to Seoul-Tokyo ties.

The 300-member National Assembly is controlled by the main opposition liberal Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). The DPK was the ruling party during Moon's administration, under which the DPK played the anti-Japan card hard.

The DPK downplayed the Yoon-Kishida meeting in New York. Rep. Kim Eui-kyeom of the DPK claimed on a radio show that the Japanese prime minister had refused to meet Yoon but the meeting was held anyway because Yoon himself paid a visit to where Kishida was located for a meeting.

Kim called the Yoon-Kishida meeting "humiliating diplomacy."

Another DPK lawmaker, Rep. Park Chan-dae, alleged that President Yoon pushed for the meeting with Kishida for the sake of meeting, suggesting he only wanted "results."

The DPK's scathing assessment of the Yoon-Kishida meeting stood in stark contrast with how it was characterized by the ruling People Power Party (PPP). The ruling party emphasized the fact that the leaders of the two countries met for talks for the first time in two years and nine months, calling the summit Yoon's earnest effort to restore Seoul-Tokyo ties which were destroyed by the previous Moon government.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference on Sept. 22 in New York. AP-Yonhap
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks during a press conference on Sept. 22 in New York. AP-Yonhap

Weak leaders

Yoon and Kishida share in common the fact that they both have weak political footing. As a president who has almost no political experience, other than the fact that he ran in the March 9 presidential election on the PPP's ticket, Yoon's political base is fragile.

Kishida is a leader of a minor faction inside the LDP and he too has a weak political base.

Recently, the Japanese leader has been facing another domestic debacle, as his decision to hold a state funeral for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has backfired with much resentment expressed by the Japanese public.

"Now Kishida has been badly weakened by the toxic legacies of Shinzo Abe, especially the Moonies scandals of systemic ties between the Unification Church and the LDP. The public is also opposed to the state funeral for Abe by a 2-1 margin," Kingston said. "As a result, Kishida's public support has imploded and he will be even more cautious. So two weak leaders are unlikely to make much sustainable headway on reconciliation."

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo left for Tokyo on Tuesday for a two-day visit for the state funeral of Abe. On his first day in Japan, Han will pay tribute to the late Japanese prime minister and meet Kishida on his second day before returning to Seoul.

It remains to be seen whether the Han-Kishida meeting can result in some meaningful progress in Seoul-Tokyo relations. However, considering what has already transpired, there seems to be little the leaders of the two countries can do to improve bilateral relations.

Kang Hyun-kyung

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