Yoon Seok-youl has hearts aflutter in Tokyo. That’s impressive, since he is neither a K-pop superstar nor a Korean media heartthrob. Yoon is the former prosecutor-general who has been tapped to be presidential candidate for the People Power Party, South Korea’s leading conservative opposition party.
Yoon’s popularity in Japan reflects his forceful support for the restoration of positive relations between South Korea and Japan. Last week, he set as his lodestar the golden era of bilateral ties — that of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
His lead in opinion polls is encouraging, but there are four months until the ballot, an eternity in politics, especially for a newcomer like Yoon who must navigate treacherous political currents and faces an experienced and charismatic opponent. Few issues are as electric in Korean politics as relations with Japan, and while domestic issues will determine the outcome of next year’s vote, Yoon’s call for improved relations will be used against him throughout the campaign.
Yoon rose to fame after successfully prosecuting former President Park Geun-hye and several prominent businessmen. Eager to root out corruption, President Moon Jae-in named Yoon prosecutor-general, a move that he soon came to regret when Yoon focused his attention on Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who was removed on charges of illicit business activities involving his family. When the administration retaliated by demoting his deputies, Yoon resigned, claiming law and order were under attack by the government.
A traditional Korean conservative, Yoon supports business and wants to lighten the regulatory burden so that it can innovate and flourish. (His record suggests that he won’t turn a blind eye to business excesses, but priorities can shift along with jobs.) He is a skeptic of North Korea, which means that he is a strong supporter of the alliance with the United States, and he has called for cooperation with democratic countries. He wants to establish a North-South-U.S. liaison office in Panmunjom to get meaningful dialogue on denuclearization back on track as well as better communication between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Yoon has promised deeper integration with Western security mechanisms. That holds out hope of cooperation with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the group that includes Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., as well as closer ties with the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing partnership that includes the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to counter North Korean threats.
Most striking has been Yoon’s support for a more pragmatic approach to Japan, one that focuses on the future. He recognizes that Korea and Japan share foundational values. He believes in the importance of the military information sharing agreement between the two countries, criticizing Moon for threatening to terminate the deal, playing politics with a vital partner and jeopardizing national security. In June, he called for “a grand bargain” with Tokyo that “puts all the related issues such as comfort women, forced labor, security cooperation and trade on the table.” He endorsed regular meetings between Japan and Korea relations “in the fields of defense, foreign affairs and economy, as we do with the U.S.,” a call that includes a two-plus-two dialogue of the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers.
In prepared remarks last week to the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, Yoon said that he would open the “Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi Declaration 2.0 era, commencing a new 50 years of Korea-Japan relations … .” He also said he would meet with the Japanese prime minister to chart a new vision for “a future of shared prosperity.”
Of course, a Yoon administration would not (and could not) ignore or dismiss the historical issues — territorial disputes, questions over reparations for wartime forced labor, forced sexual servitude — that have poisoned the bilateral relationship. South Korea, would, he said, maintain a “dignified position” on those problems.
Most polls show Yoon ahead in the campaign. In a survey taken earlier this month, 57% of respondents said they would back him, while 33% supported Lee Jae-myung, former governor of Gyeonggi province and a member of Moon’s ruling Democratic Party. Lee is best known for progressive social policies, such as providing a universal basic income and his skepticism of Japan. He has also criticized the country for having a “vague attitude on territorial issues and imperialist aggressions.”
Lee is mining a deep vein of distrust. In a September survey by Seoul’s Asan Institute, 71.5% of respondents assessed Japan’s influence in the region to be negative. In the last iteration of the authoritative Genron/East Asia Institute poll of Japan-South Korea opinion, 71.6% of South Koreans had either a “bad” or “relatively bad” impression of Japan, while those who had a “good” or “relatively good” impression of Japan plummeted from 31.7% to just 12.3%.
Relations with Japan remain bitterly contested, but most observers don’t believe that those issues will play a big role in the March election. As in most democratic polities, pocketbook issues dominate voters’ thinking. Dan Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University, notes, however, that Korean conservatives are using Japan as an issue to define their differences with the Moon administration and the progressives. “The accusations of mishandling of relations with Japan and the contention that it is undermining Korean security and alliance relations with the U.S. seems to have some real resonance with some Korean voters, including some in the younger generation.”
Will those charges get traction? Lauren Richardson, a lecturer at Australia National University, thinks not. She argues in a recent article that this reflects “groupthink … 1965 logic that the two countries, both allies of the United States, should get along for security reasons.” That appeals to national security theorists, but “it discounts the reality that both governments weigh their positions on history problems above potential benefits of enhancing trilateral security cooperation.”
Scott Snyder and I made a similar argument in “The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash.” We concluded that a perception of diminished security threats loosened the glue that bound Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, and allowed national identity concerns to drive a wedge between the two U.S. allies. A sense that the external environment has become more dangerous could push Tokyo and Seoul back together, and intensifying U.S.-China competition, in combination with increasingly negative views of China in South Korea, might be that catalyst. Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, however, cautions against taking that logic too far: “Distrust of China isn’t the same as being pro-Japan. China is the silent driver of a lot of debates in South Korea, but South Koreans see the U.S. as their hedge, not Japan.”
Still, it is striking to see a South Korean politician ready to take the initiative with Japan and not just let the relationship take its course. That won’t win Yoon the March election: The relationship with Japan is an issue for South Korean voters, but it’s still not a vote-getter.
Yoon’s call for a Kim-Obuchi reset is precisely the orientation that Japan should applaud and pursue. (Snyder and I endorsed a similar approach in our book). It should put Tokyo on notice that his election would be an opportunity for Japan. If governments here have been serious about wanting a successful and productive relationship with Seoul, then the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should reach out quickly to show that Yoon has a partner. Japan cannot afford to miss this chance.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019) and “The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash” (Columbia University Press, 2015).
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