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[Hwang’s China and the World] Korean and Japanese leaders can only cease the vicious cycle

Junya Nishino
Junya Nishino

From the stance of Korean diplomacy, relations with Japan are the primary dilemma. Although there may be some differences in degree compared to the US according to political orientation, an alliance has immutable value. It has an absolute influence on daily life in Korea. At the same time, though we may have a different perspective from China, we cannot neglect China’s influence on Korea’s economy and policies toward North Korea. The US and China are like two strong wings flanking Korean diplomacy. Meanwhile, Japan has been ousted from the top to third rank behind the US and China. In today’s Korea, Japan is considered within the frame of US-Republic of Korea-Japan cooperation to strengthen the US-ROK alliance. The Republic of Korea refers to South Korea’s official designation. It seems Japan no longer counts Korea as a valuable neighbor in strategic and absolute terms, nor feel regret for moral wrongs it has done to Korea in the past. Japan appears to consider Korea tilted in favor of China, and unhelpful from Japan’s point of view. Both the Japanese government and society have lost considerable interest in Korea.



We are facing the worst evaluations on Korea-Japan relations since the two countries’ establishment of diplomatic ties. At this time, we are in need of various expert views from both Korea and Japan, on where their relationship should be headed and how their issues should be resolved. For a precise discussion about Korea-Japan relations after the inauguration of Korea’s new government, this discussion invited the representative Japanese expert on Korean politics and diplomacy, Professor Junya Nishino. Professor Nishino achieved his Ph.D. in Korea, and is able to catch subtle nuances in the Korean language. He is now also serving as the Director of the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at Keio University.



Hwang: How can we view the People Power Party’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s victory in terms of Korean political history?

Nishino: Since Korea’s democratization in 1987, president-elect Yoon will inaugurate as the 20th president, but it is the first time that someone who has no political experience has been elected. He is also the president of Korea under a special circumstance. Division has been maintained for more than 70 years between the two Koreas, who are still technically in military conflict. Thus there is no way we cannot pay serious attention to President-elect Yoon. However, it is quite regrettable that he is already struggling considerably with issues such as relocating the presidential office. As President Moon Jae-in also initially used this agenda of relocating the presidential office, people do not seem to oppose the agenda itself, but the timing and approach are strained. I look forward to seeing Korea’s new government inaugurated smoothly.



Hwang: What was the most intriguing part of the recent election?

Nishino: I would say that there was no such “spirit of the times” or “meta-discourse” in the recent presidential election. Roh Moo-hyun in 2002 came up with “new politics” after the three Kims’ politics. Lee Myung-bak in 2007 called himself the “economy president,” aiming for post-ideology politics. Park Geun-hye in 2013 claimed she was for “economic democratization,” although she was a conservative candidate. Moon Jae-in in 2017 was elected under his “eradication of corruption” agenda. By contrast, President-elect Yoon does not seem to have a slogan.

Instead of any meta-discourse, both candidates from the ruling and opposition parties came up with numerous pledges for Koreans’ daily lives. I see this as another characteristic of the recent election. As Korea is now a mature democratic and developed country, Korean people tend to concentrate on their individual lives rather than on setting the primary direction a state should head toward -- the so-called spirit of the times or meta-discourse. We can say that Korean society is now welcoming a great change. However, evaluation in this aspect might be a bit premature, because although Korea has become a mature democratic and developed country, the reality of division is still dominating a majority of Korean people’s lives.



Hwang: How do you anticipate the new administration’s government operations?

Nishino: As the voting results show, it was a victory of 48.56 percent versus 47.87 percent, with a difference of only 0.73 percent, or around 240,000 votes. We can say the division and polarization of Korean politics and society is getting very serious. Korean politics originally had ideologically opposing sides of conservatives versus liberals. However, Korean politics today also has emotional and psychological conflicts which seem to be reaching a severe degree. And this presidential election has proven this. We witnessed how negative emotions toward the opponent could become political momentum, just like in the US.

Furthermore, social cleavages in Korean society were mostly formed along the lines of ideologies, regions and generations. But these cleavages are becoming more complex than before as gender, a new variable of conflict, has gotten involved. What is implied in the election result will be a great burden and obstacle in the Yoon administration’s government operations. He won with 48 percent support, but has to contend politically against the Democratic Party of Korea, whose candidate won 47 percent of the vote. He also has to deal with the Democratic Party’s large opposition majority taking 172 seats in the National Assembly.

President-elect Yoon mentioned he would lead national integration and cooperative governance after the election. However, this is no different from what President Moon said in May 2017. Even so, cleavages in Korean society have gotten deeper in the five years since then. As the new government is facing more objection than back then, it will not be so easy to mitigate serious social issues and move on for recovery.



Hwang: What is your outlook on the new government’s diplomacy? Many are predicting that the Moon Jae-in administration’s balancing act between the US and China will tilt toward the US under the new administration.

Nishino: When it comes to the foundation and main direction of diplomacy and security policies, I assume there must be a great change. The Yoon administration seems to put liberal democracy at the very front of its diplomatic and security policies. In this vein, the Yoon administration will attempt to strengthen the US-ROK alliance to another level and rearrange Korea’s relationship with China. President-elect Yoon has criticized the Moon administration’s diplomatic and security policy as “strategic ambiguity” before the election. Therefore, Yoon will abandon this policy and fully focus on Korea-Japan and US-Korea-Japan cooperation. Additionally, he will actively try to engage in the Quad alliance of the US, Japan, Australia and India. The fact that President-elect Yoon called US President Biden the day after the election on March 10, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on March 11, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on March 16 and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 17 shows the Yoon administration’s diplomatic priorities sequentially. Furthermore, it is quite notable that he had a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 25. Yoon has mentioned that he would “realize Korea-China relations based on mutual respect” during his presidential election campaign. His remarks imply a view that Korea has not been respected by China so far.



Hwang: How do you foresee the new government’s policy toward North Korea?

Nishino: Just like how it was in previous conservative governments, policies will shift from the liberal Moon government’s inter-Korean talks and cooperation to strengthening deterrence to threats from North Korea as a priority. When it comes to strengthening deterrence, we see there are two options. The first one is a stronger US-ROK alliance, and the second is enhancing domestic strength. Yoon has pledged both options. The people behind his national security policies also have roots in previous conservative governments. In this sense, the Yoon administration is predicted to practice both options in tandem. In terms of the US-ROK alliance, joint military exercises will be held and high level talks will be promoted for strengthened extended deterrence. For domestic strength, three pillars – the Kill-Chain strategy, Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) -- will be reorganized and intensified. He additionally pledged for extra deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. It might seem like Yoon is putting on quite a tough stance. However, he could mention these before the election because the majority of the Korean population had negative perceptions toward North Korea and China.

So far, we still have to wait and see how these pledges can be realized. The Yoon administration will eventually stick to this direction, but the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding region will face considerably high military tension during the implementation process, at least in the short-term. No one can tell for sure if Korean people will take that risk and continue supporting the Yoon administration. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, his opposition -- which got 47 percent of voters’ support and 172 seats in the National Assembly -- will try to break his march. In any case, the Yoon government’s diplomatic and security policy will bring changes to the regional security environment. Therefore, Japan is also watching the new government’s diplomatic prospects as a neighboring country.



Hwang: How is Japanese society accepting Yoon’s election victory?

Nishino: Since President-elect Yoon has constantly showed his strong will for improving Korea-Japan relations during the campaign, it is true that Japan is anticipating a better relationship. During his campaign, he declared that he would seek “a comprehensive agenda including historical issues, economic cooperation, and security cooperation” to improve relations. Yoon set the Kim Dae-jung–Obuchi Joint Declaration back in October 1998 as his model. The year 1998 and the joint declaration is still remembered as a time when bilateral relations reached a peak. Thus, Japan seems to have some expectation for the Yoon administration’s efforts for now.

On the other hand, there are voices countering these high expectations for three reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, we have to consider the domestic political environment where the Yoon administration stands. It faces difficulties in running the overall government. Also, Korea’s relationship with Japan is already a problematic issue in domestic politics. Therefore, there will be strong objections from the opposition party. Second, there are pending issues between Korea and Japan which are unlikely to be resolved only by a change in leadership or through leaders’ efforts. The forced labor issue is at the core. According to the Supreme Court’s ruling on October 2018, the encashment process of the Japanese company involved in the forced labor issue is ongoing. As it is an action under the judiciary’s final ruling, there is a limit on what the administration can do. Even if the Yoon administration attempts to pause the encashment process and let the Korean government compensate victims instead, budgetary or legal action is required. In that case, the National Assembly must be persuaded. Also, assuming that all of the above is carried out, the plaintiffs (victims of forced labor) and public opinion must be persuaded as well. Third, Japanese people still remember that Korean conservative administrations were the ones who worsened Korea-Japan relations 10 years ago. In other words, it was the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations. That is why some people in Japan think that they should not have too much hope in the new conservative Yoon administration.

Nonetheless, since Korea-Japan relations are already terrible, people tend to think it should not get worse. That is why the overall mood seems to be hopeful for Yoon’s government.



Hwang: What is the Kishida administration’s official stance? Do you expect that his government would respond to the Yoon’s administration with this point of view?

Nishino: I think the Kishida government is also finding consensus with the Japanese public’s sentiments and starting points as I have mentioned above. Although negative views about Korea is dominant in Japan, Prime Minister Kishida delivered a congratulatory message on March 10, the day after the Korean election. Then the two leaders had a call on March 11. This is an unprecedentedly quick response. It proves that Kishida is also thinking that he should not miss this change in government as an opportunity. During the phone call, Kishida said he would like to “closely cooperate with President-elect Yoon to enhance Korea-Japan relations.” He also said that “amid the periodical transition that international society is facing, a healthy Korea-Japan relationship is essential to realize rule-based international order and to secure regional and world peace, stability, and prosperity.”



Hwang: Then do you expect Korea-Japan relations to recover under the Yoon-Kishida administrations?

Nishino: Kishida himself seems to have the will to enhance relations. However, it does not seem so easy for him to make actual steps. The ruling majority Liberal Democratic Party in Japan has agreed to not yield to Korea. The Japanese public feels the same. Furthermore, as Japan is holding elections for its upper house in July, bold actions cannot be taken on issues with Korea since it is under public scrutiny. Under such domestic circumstances, how flexible the Kishida administration can be toward the Yoon administration will be a key point in promoting Japan-Korea relations. Ultimately, the two countries’ domestic politics are the obstacle. In other words, domestic politics are the centrifugal force.

On the other hand, we should not overlook the fact that the rise of the Yoon administration is the centripetal force in improving Korea-Japan relations, along with the changing international politics environment. As we are living with issues of China in East Asia and the Ukraine war on the international stage, cooperation between neighboring countries like Japan and Korea is naturally bound to happen. This is especially the case when the two countries share the same liberal democratic values and are economically developed. They are both developed economies who rank in 3rd (Japan) and 10th (Korea) globally. Prime Minister Kishida’s mention in phone calls also come from this context.

Therefore, how the Yoon administration emphasizes liberal democratic countries’ solidarity will function as a glue between Korea and Japan. During the Moon administration, Korea and Japan had some differences in their diplomatic and security policies, including policies toward North Korea and China. This was one of the reasons Korea and Japan could not get along together easily. Compared to this, the Yoon administration’s national security line is parallel to the Kishida administration’s. It means that the two countries are sharing a larger space of cooperation in security diplomacy now.



Hwang: In what aspects or areas do you think Korea and Japan should cooperate preferentially?

Nishino: The problem with North Korea is the most urgent. It has launched seven missiles in January alone. Kim Jong-un has implied that he would launch an intercontinental ballistic missile and lift the nuclear test moratorium at a Political Bureau Meeting. He has actually tested an ICBM, Hwasong-17, on March 24. According to the report, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is under reconstruction. Furthermore, North Korea is working on a five-year military plan to reinforce national defense power and to develop new weapons. In sum, this implies that security cooperation and information sharing between Korea and Japan, and between the US, Korea and Japan have become far more important than before. Korea-Japan security cooperation is definitely helpful for both countries. The Indo-Pacific Strategy from the Biden administration announced in February also weighs on US-ROK-Japan cooperation.

As mentioned earlier, the invasion of Ukraine reminded us of the importance of liberal democracy once again. At the same time, it showed the necessity of cooperation in economic security, including reorganization of supply chains. As far as I know, the Yoon administration is also interested in economic security. For further Korea-Japan cooperation in this area, Japan must lift export regulations on Korea which were imposed in 2019. I think the Korean government has so far done well in improving its export management as per Japan’s requirements. Japan’s forward-looking action must be taken for the sake of the two countries as soon as possible.

The Kishida administration is about to set its National Security Strategy within this year. It is the first revision in 10 years since the Abe administration first established it in December 2013. In the last decade, due to the two countries’ worsened relations, the proportion of cooperation with Korea in Japan’s security policy has steadily decreased. The Yoon administration’s inauguration and dynamic international circumstances are requiring Japan to cooperate with Korea once again. In this sense, I am personally interested in how the new NSS will mark the significance of Korea-Japan cooperation.



Hwang: Do you have any last words to share?

Nishino: Although I have said that a change in leadership is not sufficient for Korea-Japan relations, the two leaders’ wills and behaviors still matter. This is because people in Korea and Japan are reading sincere signs from the respective leaders’ attitudes. Both leaders must keep in mind that the Korean people are watching Prime Minister Kishida, while the Japanese people are also keeping their eyes on President-elect Yoon.

In addition, although the leaders are standing amid tough domestic politics, if they take an overly cautious approach toward each other, they may lose the opportunity for improvement. The Yoon administration is facing local elections in June, right after his inauguration on May 10. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Kishida faces elections for the upper house in July. Resolving complicated issues such as forced labor can be set aside until after the elections for now. However, high level channels should be closely communicating from now on and start building trust. The two leaders must be prudent but rapid with strong wills in order to finally break through the vicious cycle of the last 10 years.


By Hwang Jae-ho

Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a current member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.


By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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