Japan’s government on Thursday welcomed the election of a new president in South Korea who supports stronger ties with Washington and Tokyo, as officials and experts expressed hope for an improvement in badly strained relations.
Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative former top prosecutor and foreign policy neophyte, was elected president on Wednesday to replace outgoing liberal Moon Jae-in, under whose leadership Japan-South Korea relations sank to their lowest level in years because of disputes over wartime history.
“Japan-South Korea relations are in a very severe condition, and we cannot leave them as they are,” Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio told reporters Thursday.
“Healthy ties between Japan and South Korea are indispensable for the peace, stability and prosperity of the world,” especially as it faces difficulties such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said. “Cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea is also important.”
Kishida, however, said Japan will stick to its stance that all wartime compensation issues with South Korea were settled by a 1965 treaty, which he said is the basis of friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries. He said it is crucial for South Korea to “keep the promises between the nations.”
“I believe it is important to communicate with the new president and his new administration in order to restore healthy relations based on Japan’s consistent position,” Kishida said. “I hope to hold talks with the new government as I watch its actions.”
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul deteriorated sharply after South Korean courts ordered Japanese companies to pay reparations to Korean laborers over abuses during World War II, when Korea was a colony of Japan. Another sticking point is Korean “comfort women” who were sexually abused by Japanese troops during the war.
Japan insists that all compensation issues were settled under the 1965 treaty and that the South Korean court orders violate international law.
Yoon said Thursday that the two countries should focus on the future.
“The focus in South Korea-Japan relations should be finding future paths that would benefit the people of both countries. During this process of future-focused cooperation, we also need to come together and discuss, find the truth and resolve issues related to the past,” he said.
Japanese officials and experts expressed relief that the new South Korean leader has advocated a stronger alliance with the United States and a tougher stance on North Korea, but said the leadership change may not result in a quick fix.
Matsukawa Rui, a lawmaker for Japan’s conservative governing party and a former diplomat, welcomed Yoon’s victory and South Korea’s return to conservative leadership, noting Yoon’s willingness to improve bilateral relations. “I expect realistic diplomacy that looks to the future rather than the past,” she tweeted.
But Sato Masahisa, a senior lawmaker in charge of the governing party’s Foreign Affairs Division, cautioned against high expectations.
“We should abandon a fantasy that a conservative’s victory can mend Japan-South Korean ties that have suffered multiple bone fractures,” he said. Conservative leadership is “better than the opposition, but there is no change to the fact that the ball remains in the South Korean court.”
Although both Japan and South Korea are military allies of the U.S. and share common concerns over North Korea and China, their ties have suffered from the legacy of Japan’s World War II actions.
Under South Korea’s previous conservative president, Park Geun-hye, Japan-South Korea relations notched several breakthroughs: the signing of a defense pact that allowed the countries to directly share military information with each other – as opposed to going through the U.S. as a go-between – and an agreement supposed to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the “comfort women” issue. Both agreements, however, were intensely controversial among South Koreans.
After Park was impeached and Moon entered the Blue House, he withdrew from the “comfort women” agreement, pointing to the lack of buy-in among the victims themselves. Then in 2019, after Japan slapped trade restrictions on South Korea following the court ruling on reparations for forced labor, Moon administration said it would withdraw from the military information-sharing deal – a decision later reversed, reportedly under pressure from the United States.
Yoon may seek to improve the relationship, but his options will be limited by South Korean public opinion, as well as the actions of politicians in Japan. Nationalistic and unrepentant comments from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan do not go unnoticed in South Korea and that restricts the ability of any South Korean president to advance ties.
“We can expect [Yoon] to try to compartmentalize addressing historical issues and working together on mutual challenges,” said Duyeon Kim of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New American Security. “But Seoul’s hands could be tied if public sentiment heats up against Japan unless his administration conducts trilateral cooperation in private with Washington and Tokyo without publicizing it.”