What South Korea’s new president means for Japan

On March 9, 2022, South Korean voters elected Yoon Suk-yeol – a former prosecutor turned politician from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) – as their next president.  Yoon edged out the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung by a margin of less than 1 percent (48.6% to 47.8%) of the popular vote.  The margin was the closest in the Republic of Korea (ROK) history and dubbed as the unlikeable election due to both candidates’ disapproval ratings matching their popularity.  Yoon will replace incumbent President Moon Jae-in on May 10, 2022.

Who is Yoon?

Yoon gained his fame investigating the previous conservative President, Park Geun-hye for corruption that ultimately led to her impeachment and imprisonment.  Yoon’s prominence earned him the rank of prosecutor general under the Moon administration but soon fell out within the ruling Democratic Party for targeting Moon’s inner circle personnel.  Due to his actions, Yoon quickly emerged as the conservative PPP’s candidate to take on the ruling party in the presidential election.  Albeit his controversial remarks, – such as pledging to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family – it was Yoon’s steadfast adherence to principles that eventually elevated him to the presidency.

South Korea’s foreign policy outlook under Yoon

The United States Yoon assured to build even closer ties with Washington – Seoul’s only treaty ally – in the face of the challenging environment in ortheast Asia.  As Yoon called for deepening the bilateral alliance as the central axis of his foreign policy, I postulate that the U.S.-ROK Alliance to run even more smoothly and synchronized on North Korea, regional, and global matters.

ChinaYoon’s request for additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems will prompt another harsh reaction – similar to 2016 during the initial THAAD deployment to the Korean Peninsula – from China.  While the U.S.-ROK Alliance ties will be strengthened with potential THAAD expansion, diplomatic and economic ties with China will take another massive blow.

Japan Yoon will seek to improve relations with Japan, which have significantly deteriorated under President Moon.  Yoon criticized Moon’s diplomacy as being too pro-Beijing and pro-Pyongyang and underscored the need to strengthen the U.S.-ROK Alliance – including by pursuing reconciliation with Japan – in order to complete the nonexistent U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateralism.  Along the same lines, Yoon vowed to resume shuttle diplomacy, a practice that has been discontinued since 2011 with Tokyo in order to improve bilateral relations.  The method calls for both leaders to make reciprocal visits for regular dialogue.

North Korea Yoon repeatedly attacked Moon’s approach (citing Kim Jong-un’s provocative spate of missile launches and weapons tests), which advocated for partial sanctions relief for North Korea to restart dialogue.  Yoon proposed making economic aid conditional upon Pyongyang’s progress toward denuclearization and emphasized the need to launch a preemptive strike in the event of an imminent threat.  Therefore, I posit that though only to a certain extent, Yoon’s tougher stance on Pyongyang will lead to increased contention between the two Koreas.

Immediate assessment

Yoon aligns closely with the views of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on China’s growing assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat in the region.  Thus, despite the difference, Seoul and Tokyo can still cooperate on the following areas: maritime security, intelligence-sharing (General Security of Military Information Agreement), and cyber-defense.

Notwithstanding, with both countries repeatedly calling on each other to take appropriate steps to address the comfort women, wartime labor issues, and territorial disputes, I find it difficult to be optimistic on the outlook of bilateral relations, at least in the near-term.  More importantly, Japanese policymakers are still going to be skeptical and maintain that all issues were settled under the 1965 Normalization Treaty.  Nevertheless, Yoon said he would not exploit historical tensions with Japan for domestic political gain and would try to resolve the rows, together with economic and security issues, in a comprehensive way.

What’s more, Kishida can certainly show his commitment and support for the bilateral relations by inviting Yoon to participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a U.S.-led regional forum that includes Australia, India, and Japan.  To conclude, I contemplate that there will not be a policy shift by Kishida before the House of Councilors’ election in July.  Any haste decision by Kishida and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party could potentially backfire and lose the majority in the upper house of the National Diet.

Leave a Comment