While Japan played down any negative impact from the political upheaval in South Korea, the possible departure of President Park Geun-hye could change Japan’s calculus on both bilateral relations and the shifting regional security landscape.
One issue that a resignation could potentially influence is the complete implementation of last year’s deal to resolve the issue of Korean “comfort women” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.
“Tokyo will not make any comments as it is a domestic matter (for South Korea),” Deputy Chief Cabinet Minister Kotaro Nogami said at a daily news conference Tuesday. “But I would expect both countries to act in accordance with the agreement.”
Japan has already fulfilled its part of the agreement by transferring a ¥1 billion fund to a South Korean foundation to help former comfort women and their relatives.
However, one thorn in the side of the deal has been a statue of a girl in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul symbolizing the plight of the comfort women.
While the agreement said that the South Korean government would strive to resolve the issue, the statue has yet to be removed.
Park’s announcement also came less than a week after the two neighbors inked a deal known as a general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA) that allows the two countries to share security secrets — particularly about nuclear-armed North Korea.
Amid a surge in provocations this year, including two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile launches, concerns have grown that a departure by Park could affect the implementation of the crucial security framework.
Still, Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, said South Korea’s core foreign policy is likely to be intact at least for a while.
“Although Seoul will be preoccupied with domestic politics in the weeks and months ahead, the national interests do not change,” Pinkston said. “So I don’t expect any major changes or disruptions in foreign policy during or after the transition. I don’t expect any change in GSOMIA.”
Another looming issue is a trilateral summit with China and South Korea that the three countries have been working on for next month in Tokyo.
While Nogami said the talks remain on schedule, the significance of the meeting could be diminished if Park cannot make what would be her first visit to Japan. Reports earlier this week said that South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn could serve as Park’s proxy.
Although experts agree that Park’s potential ouster is unlikely to impact bilateral relations drastically, a power shift within South Korea might be enough to upset the regional balance, especially when dealing with China and North Korea.
Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, said Seoul’s ties with Tokyo and Washington under a more left-leaning government would become a little more tense while its relations with China would improve, especially amid U.S. plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. With its powerful radar, the system has unnerved Beijing, which worries it could provide coverage of China’s missile installations.
Left-wing legislators in South Korea are opposed to THAAD and take a hard-line on North Korea, Kelly said.
“That’s what China wants,” he added.