|Students wearing masks of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi perform during a rally in Seoul, Friday, opposing the Japanese government's plan to release radioactive water into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. AP-Yonhap|
80% of Koreans worried about Tokyo's wastewater release plan
By Kim Yoo-chul
The United Nations nuclear watchdog's green light of Japan's controversial plan to release millions of tons of "treated" radioactive wastewater from the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific Ocean has clearly sparked anger in both Japan and its key Northeast Asian neighbors including South Korea and China.
Core points at issue include the claim by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the method of disposal is "consistent" with international safety standards, Beijing's opposition to the plan and Seoul's soft-pedaling stance respecting the IAEA's latest findings.
While a majority of the Japanese public may have reached a consensus that the radioactive wastewater has been cleansed of nearly all radioactivity and that releasing it into the Pacific Ocean is, therefore, the most understandable and acceptable course of action, there are many who disagree, particularly in neighboring countries.
In South Korea, for example, opposition politicians protested Tokyo's decision at the National Assembly. The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), which claimed that the IAEA's findings should not be a "pass" for the water release, plans to hold a nationwide rally. It has asked the Japanese government to set up a consultative body to be operated by environmentalists, marine biologists, medical experts and officials from international organizations.
A recent Gallup Korea poll showed around 80 percent of South Koreans were concerned about the potential impact of Tokyo's plan to discharge the wastewater. The operation is set to begin sometime this summer. About 1,000 people responded in the poll.
Questions included what actions the South Korean government should take and whether President Yoon Suk Yeol should ask Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to hold off on the plan.
|A TV screen broadcasting about the release of treated radioactive water from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is seen at Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in Seoul, July 7. South Korea's government on Friday formally endorsed the safety of Japanese plans to release the wastewater from the damaged nuclear plant into sea as it tried to calm people's fears about food contamination. The letters read 'Japanese seafood prohibited zone.' AP-Yonhap|
Yoon's approval rating level not disastrous
It's highly unlikely President Yoon will take an aggressive stance on the Fukushima water issue, in light of the South Korean government's efforts to improve bilateral ties after Yoon's earlier announcements about setting up a private fund rather than respecting the South Korean Supreme Court's earlier rulings requiring Japanese firms to compensate surviving South Korean victims of forced wartime labor.
"When we look at President Yoon's recent approval rating, the latest IAEA findings and the Japanese government's plan to release the Fukushima wastewater had little impact on his job performance," said Park Seong-min, chief executive at Min, a local political consultancy. "That means that President Yoon and Kishida will focus on navigating the best follow-through measures regarding the issue when they meet on the sidelines of next week's NATO summit in Lithuania."
As of the first week of July, Yoon's job approval rating was 38 percent, up 2 percentage points from a week earlier, according to a Gallup Korea poll released on July 7. The poll added 54 percent of respondents disapproved of Yoon's performance. Of the respondents who expressed dissatisfaction with Yoon's overall state affairs management, 17 percent said they disapproved of the government's "submissive" stance towards the wastewater issue.
A solid and stable job approval rating is of importance to any state leader because public backing offers leaders an both extended and expanded political space, regarded as crucial in terms of driving their strategic foreign policy initiatives. While it's not always evident to say that a state leader's tepid job performance should limit their ability to go for foreign policy objectives, however, when it specifically comes to relations with Japan, China, North Korea and the United States, there is a very high degree of domestic political polarization.
Political analysts in Seoul said if Yoon's approval rating remains low, his foreign policy teams will have to be more cautious in handling key outstanding and pending diplomatic challenges that are politically sensitive.
"Because young voters, considered as swing voters, are taking a less antagonistic view of Japan, as various poll results showed Japan's likeability score among South Koreans remained high with those in their 20s and 30s, which means these swing voters don't seriously care about the IAEA's recent findings. President Yoon is expected to focus on specifying follow-through measures on the Fukushima water issue," said Lee Jae-mook, a political science professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
|Protesters hold signs in front of the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, during a July 5 demonstration against Japan's wastewater dumping plan. Nearly 100 Japanese protesters rallied against the plan to dump radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, expressing their grave concern over the final report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that approved the plan. Xinhua-Yonhap|
Also, because the strategic imperative of Korea and Japan's closer bilateral ties is very necessary due to growing geopolitical challenges such as China's military assertiveness and North Korea's evolving nuclear threats, sources at intelligence agencies said the incumbent administration doesn't want to see Yoon's statesmanship at risk due to the Fukushima water issue.
"Both South Korea and Japan want to keep their partnership working as Washington, Seoul and Tokyo are now sharing a vision for the U.S.' Indo-Pacific Strategy and the necessity of deep partnership on critical technologies such as semiconductors and batteries. Therefore, Seoul doesn't want to backpedal on the ongoing reconciliatory mood in its relations with Japan," one intelligence source said.
Officials at the presidential office in Seoul declined to comment regarding the specifics of the scheduled Yoon-Kishida summit on the sidelines of this week's NATO high-level meeting.
Deepening political polarization in South Korea could become a source of friction and the sustainability of efforts by Yoon and Kishida in stabilizing Seoul-Tokyo relations would be subject to future reversals in the absence of acts of statesmanship by them. The leaders of the countries need to set up a high-level of consensus capable of insulating their relationship from domestic political influence in both countries. Political experts expect Yoon to suggest creating a body to monitor the progress of the wastewater release.
"It's a possible idea for South Korea and Japan to reach a consensus for the establishment of a body aimed at monitoring the progress of the water discharge," a government official said.
DPK officials contacted by The Korea Times said the party is considering filing a petition to the U.N. nuclear watchdog because it questions the credibility of the IAEA's latest statement.
The ruling People Power Party criticized the DPK's move on the issue as inciting "unnecessary fears" among the public with unscientific claims as a way to take political advantage of the issue ahead of next year's general election.