Presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung (left), Yoon Suk-yeol (Yonhap)
Despite its importance, Korea-Japan relations do not usually stand out as a major issue during the Korean presidential election, with low voter interest and candidates‘ reluctance to speak on sensitive topics.
Two frontrunner presidential candidates, the Democratic Party of Korea’s Lee Jae-myung and the People Power Party’s Yoon Suk-yeol, have not made concrete promises on mending Korea’s strained relations with Japan. But at times, they revealed how they view the neighboring country. Both of them agree that relations between the two nations should be restored, but their perspectives on how to solve pending tricky issues are different.
Lee blames Japanese politics, and Yoon points to the Moon Jae-in government as the cause of the two countries turning their backs on each other. Lee has said that “(Japan) should face the past,” while Yoon believes Korea-Japan relations were “at their worst” during the current administration because the Moon government was “obsessed with the past rather than the future.”
During Moon’s term, bilateral ties have deteriorated over multiple issues related to forced labor, “comfort women” (military sex slaves), Japan’s decision to release water from Fukushima, trade disputes in high-tech materials and most recently, Japan’s push to get the Sado mine listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most issues are directly and indirectly related to Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea.
In addressing the problems, Lee put forward the prerequisites for Japan. “Japan should truly admit (their abuses) and apologize to the victims.”
Lee’s view of Japan has been consistent since he was Seongnam mayor. In 2017, Lee publicly denounced the two countries’ agreement on Japanese military sexual slavery as “invalid” on the international memorial day for Asian women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.
When Lee was Gyeonggi Province governor in 2019, he delivered a Liberation Day message, strongly criticizing the Japanese government. He called on Japan to “wake up from a vain dream and face reality and honestly acknowledge the crimes it committed.” He added that “a sincere apology and reasonable compensation should be made to the victims of forced labor and sexual slavery.”
At a forum recently held in November, candidate Lee said Japan has “a long history of inflicting great harm” on Koreans. He added that Japan needed to learn from Germany’s attitudes toward European countries after World War II as an example.
On the possibility of military and security cooperation between Korea and Japan, he was not optimistic. “There are times when Japan’s desire to advance into the continent can be seen,” he said. “It has a history of exploitation and does not appear to be clearly reflecting on it.”
On the other hand, Yoon Suk-yeol barely mentions any historical issues from before Korea’s liberation from Japan.
He called the normalization of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan, dubbed the 1965 system, “a starting point for a good neighbor friendship and co-prosperity.” Regarding the relationship between the two countries, he views it as one “sharing liberal democracy and human rights.”
Yoon does not put forth any conditions on past issues. He said, “We need to put the issues of forced labor, comfort women, security cooperation and economic trade on one table and approach it in a grand bargain way.”
Yoon said he would first start a dialogue with Japan if elected. “Even if it is a difficult issue, we can overcome the past if we find a point of contact and implement it together,” he said.
The biggest difference between the two candidates is that Yoon is open to the possibility of a trilateral alliance on military cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan. He said, “It is still difficult to judge (the alliance issue), but it is clear that cooperative relations have no choice but to upgrade.”
In response to policy inquiries from an advocacy organization for victims of Japanese military sexual slavery, Lee and Sim Sang-jung of the Justice Party said Wednesday the 2015 Japanese military sexual slavery agreement was an inappropriate agreement that violated the victim-centered principle. Yoon and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party refused to answer.
Despite Lee’s hard-line attitude toward Japan, relations with Japan are expected to improve -- regardless of who wins the election, experts say. Both Lee and Yoon agree that relations need to recover, and public sentiment is also changing.
“If Yoon is elected, he will make efforts to improve relations with Japan for the Korea-US alliance as predicted. Even if Lee is elected, there is room for improvement in relations with Japan,” said Hwang Jae-ho, a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Currently, the Moon administration does not engage in dialogue with Japan at all, but Lee is expected to make decisions based on pragmatic diplomacy centered on national interests as per his declarations, Hwang said.
“Another thing is that public sentiment is changing. (Koreans) now have strong antipathy toward China, but less against Japan. The public paid more attention to issues from the Beijing Olympics, but less on the Sado mine. The policies (of whomever is elected) will reflect a lot of the public sentiment.”
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org